Private college: Still a bargain for some

Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle), Friday, May 15, 2009

by Rodney Proctor With each passing day, the economic crisis in America seems to add to its list of potential causalities — financial institutions, insurance companies, automakers, retailers, even homeowners. However, the biggest loss of all for many may be the loss of hope that they can attain their dream of a college education.

For at least the past 50 years, a primary way to improve one’s life in America has been to get a college education. Statistics consistently show that the average college graduate earns nearly twice as much as a high school graduate and almost three times as much as a high school dropout. The dream of a college education for their children has been a major motivator for many American mothers and fathers over the years.

With mounting layoffs, foreclosures and economic uncertainty, today’s world has many fearful that a college education may no longer be possible for them or their children. This sense of hopelessness is even more frightening in many lowincome and minority communities where education is one of the few “legal” tools for breaking the cycle of poverty.

However, the truth is that a college education is still possible and affordable for students in the right circumstances. In fact, for low-income, minority, or firstgeneration college students who possess the right academic qualifications, the best option may actually be a private college in spite of high costs.

Independent institutions place a great emphasis on making sure that students who enroll actually graduate. In fact, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) reports that most students, including low-income and minority students, are as likely if not more likely to earn a degree in four years from a private college as they would in six years from a public institution. According to NAICU, students who have kids, who must work full time, who get no help from their parents, or who face other challenges also are more likely to graduate from a private college.

Washington state’s private colleges are diverse. The 10 members of Independent Colleges of Washington enroll about the same ratio of minority students as do the public baccalaureate universities, about 20 percent. And all students — African American, Native American, Asian American, Latino, white — are far more likely to graduate in four years than their counterparts at the public schools. This is possible because students at independent colleges receive lots of support. It starts with small classes where students actually get to know and talk with their professors and classmates.

Education at a small college is not a spectator sport. In these environs, fewer students fall through the cracks because they actively participate in their education and they get help when needed.

Student support includes mentoring and tutoring, both from professors and from other students. It’s easy to get involved in — or start — affinity groups that offer peer support and activities, and/or virtually any other kind of student organization. As private entities, independent colleges can target help where it’s needed most, whether it’s for minority students who wish to become teachers, or nursing students who agree to work in a low-income community upon graduation.

Although tuition at a private college in Washington is, on average, about four times that of the University of Washington, few students pay the full amount. Nearly 90 percent receive some financial aid. The colleges themselves give grants, with the average assistance per student being just over $10,000 per year. The state Legislature recognizes the power of financial aid, and invested an additional $52 million in student aid in its newly written budget despite an enormous shortfall.

Students also may receive federal grants as well as state and federal work study. Organizations such as Independent Colleges of Washington provide scholarships specifically for students who attend member institutions.

In short, given the current economic recession, the prospect of affording a college education may seem daunting. However, for low income, minority and first generation college students, college is an investment they cannot afford to pass up. More specifically, I believe that the independent colleges in Washington are the best option for low-income and minority students who are up to the academic challenge.

The independent colleges of Washington offer a rigorous college education grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, with an emphasis on critical thinking, lifelong learning, ethics, leadership and community service. More importantly, the substantial financial and other support systems at these private institutions make the benefits very clear and practically a bargain given the increased longterm economic benefits of a college education.

RODNEY PROCTOR is a member of the board of directors of Independent Colleges of Washington.