Look beyond sticker when choosing college

Mark A. Heckler
President, Valparaiso University
September 26, 2009

In these challenging economic times, families are rightly concerned with stretching each dollar as far as it can go. Many families making college decisions are under particular stress as they consider their own financial situation and read stories about the increasing price of higher education in the United States. Yet now, more than ever, the increasingly competitive global economy and the need for young scientists, businesspeople and leaders equipped to solve the profound problems facing our world makes higher education critical for our individual and collective future prosperity.

With Indiana preparing for College GO! Week (Oct. 12-16), I encourage high school students and families to look at the full range of colleges and universities, public and private, small and large, church-affiliated or secular that are available in this state. As families consider these options, it is important to consider which institution offers the most value.

The best value isn’t necessarily the lowest price. In making an investment as important as education – a decision that will help set the course of the rest of one’s life – students and parents must ask themselves what the long-term return on their investment will be.

When buying a car, families don’t simply look at the sticker price. They ask if a car can be depended on to run for years without breaking down, if it gets good gas mileage and if everyone will fit comfortably. A college decision is somewhat like that car search, and it often turns out that the best value isn’t necessarily what at first glance appears to be the cheapest.

While it can appear private colleges are more expensive than public institutions based upon tuition, families should consider the difference that smaller class sizes, more readily available courses, financial aid packages and overall educational quality can make in the real cost of attending a school.

At Valparaiso University, for example, 63 percent of students enrolling as first-year students graduate in four years. Compare that performance with the full range of Indiana’s institutions. Graduating in four rather than five years saves a year of tuition bills and living expenses. That’s a difference of tens of thousands of dollars for those able to launch their career a year or even two years earlier.

In addition to helping students graduate earlier, many of Indiana’s private institutions also are deeply committed to making college affordable to families of all income levels through financial aid packages. Approximately 93 percent of Valpo students receive financial aid, with an average aid package of more than $24,000.

Financial aid can leave students with a smaller bill to pay at a private college or university than some public institutions, even though the published cost of tuition is higher. Many families of modest means already recognize the value offered by private higher education. As evidence, the average family income of students at Indiana’s independent colleges and universities is $3,500 lower than that of students at four-year state institutions. Statistics show that Indiana’s private institutions enroll students from all socio-economic classes.

Consider also the indicators of the quality of the education available at many private universities. Classes at institutions such as Valpo are taught by professors – not teaching assistants – because we are focused 100 percent on student success. A rigorous liberal arts curriculum that fosters critical thinking combined with professional experiences and plenty of leadership opportunities make private university graduates increasingly attractive to employers in a rapidly changing world. A Valpo education is much more than a commodity that one buys like a care – it is a life-changing and life-affirming experience. Just ask our alumni.

As students and families consider colleges, I urge you to ask about graduation rates, what financial aid is available, internship opportunities, job or graduate school placement rates and whether students regularly collaborate with faculty. The answers will help you choose a school that is the best fit for you. And also consider the degree to which you approach your college choice as a product you are buying, or an opportunity to transform yourself – intellectually, creatively and even spiritually. Your approach will determine whether you will make the best choice and get the most out of your investment.