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"Why Does it Cost So Much?"
You want Rolls Royce quality, youn eed to pay for a Rolls Royce.
By Neal S. Burdick ’72

“Did you say it costs $47,560 to go to St. Lawrence this year?” “That’s right. That’s the comprehensive fee: tuition, room, board and a couple of other small charges.”

“Wow!  Why does it cost so much?”

We get this a lot.  So does every other private college (most of them are generally in the same price range, with many costing more than St. Lawrence).  It’s a fair question, though it may be an exploited one since it seems to get lots more media attention than it warrants.

Although many people on college campuses don’t like the comparison, in many ways a college is a business, albeit a non-profit one.  Like any non-profit business, it has overhead, which it strives to match with revenue.  (If it were a for-profit business, it would strive to exceed its overhead.)

But a college isn’t just like other businesses.  One difference is that it turns out not a product, like a washing machine, but a process – learning (in St. Lawrence’s case, liberal learning).  That’s not something you load onto a truck and ship to a store with the expectation that it will wear out or become obsolete in half a dozen years.  It’s something that will continue and, ideally, develop, over a lifetime.  And that makes it worth more, which makes providing it more expensive.

Look at it this way.  In most businesses, computers lower operating costs.  In colleges, they increase them, because, while they are certainly used in operations, they’re also teaching tools, so you need more of them, and in a non-revenue-generating or cost-saving role.  Would you send your child to a college that has one computer for every two students, or one for every 10?  The money to buy those computers has to come from somewhere.  Where it comes from, primarily, is the comprehensive fee (other main sources are gifts and investment income).

Another difference is that colleges are more like cities than other businesses.  Other businesses don’t house their personnel overnight, or feed them three meals a day seven days a week, or keep the lights and heat on for them around the clock, as colleges do their students.  Colleges have to provide a health center, and a career counseling service, and a multi-million-volume library (some businesses do provide some of these to a limited degree) and they have more plumbers and painters and lawn-mowers and snow-shovelers per customer.  All these things cost ever more money. 

Yes, you can find colleges that are cheaper than St. Lawrence, even private liberal arts colleges.  But do they have 37 academic majors and 37 minors?  Do they have study programs in 14 foreign countries?  Or faculty:student ratios of 11:1? Do they have 32 intercollegiate sports teams, including two at the NCAA Division I level?  Do they have new state-of-the-art science buildings and field houses and student centers?  Or, as Pat Farmer, director of financial aid, likes to point out, opportunities for faculty/student collaborative research or internships with alumni?

“SLU is expensive because it costs a lot to provide all of the things that students want,” says Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Terry Cowdrey. “Students who come to SLU are not interested in a no-frills experience.”

So, you get what you pay for.  Quality costs money.  Things cost money.  Your investment in your children’s education is one of the most critical of your life.  And you have only one or two chances per kid to get it right.  If that expensive car doesn’t work out, you can trade it in and try again.  You can’t do that with a college education.  So why scrimp?

It’s often said, top-notch higher education is costly, but consider the alternative.  Do we want our world to be led by poorly educated people? 

Partly, it depends on what we as a society want out of higher education.  Do we want mere recitation of facts and figures that will send students into jobs that may be high-paying at entry but open few doors for advancement?  Or do we want our youth to be prepared to be lifelong learners, able to adapt to new scenarios and new careers that don’t exist today?  Do we want today’s students to be followers, or leaders?  Following is cheap; leading requires an investment.  Who will be better prepared to try to solve our medical problems, find alternatives to oil or restore America’s place in the eyes of the world?

Let’s let President Daniel F. Sullivan have the final word here.  Whenever he’s riding an elevator with someone who asks the question posed at the top of this story, and he has 30 seconds to answer, here are the points he makes:

•  While the comprehensive fee is over $47,000, the average St. Lawrence student pays only about $28,000.

•  Meanwhile, St. Lawrence spends almost $65,000 per student – “each one gets a subsidy,” the president says.  “That’s what it costs to provide the rich array of academic, co-curricular and extracurricular programs we provide, wherein nearly half of our students study abroad, 35% play on an intercollegiate team and 35% major in natural science or mathematics – very expensive disciplines to have at a high level of excellence.”

•  A night in the University Inn in Canton costs roughly $98.  Students are on campus for about 250 days.  “The average actual cost of attending St. Lawrence is about equal to a night at the inn,” President Sullivan says, “and you get an education besides.”

St. Lawrence Magazine editor Neal Burdick has sent two children to colleges with high price tags but generous financial aid programs, a fact that changed the way he looked at college costs.
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