Published: Sunday, January 11, 2009, Richmond Times-Dispatch Commentary Column by Robert R. Lindgren, President of Randolph-Macon College
In today's uncertain economy, families are struggling. They are concerned about their jobs and their mortgages. Retirement funds are slipping, and home equity loans are less available. Struggling parents now have the added stress of wondering how they'll be able to afford a college education for their children -- and in particular, a private liberal arts education.
Before making any college decisions, I would encourage parents and students to talk to the private colleges you may be considering and learn more about the distinct advantages and opportunities available at our institutions. Please do not cross a private college off your list because of the economy or the published tuition price. The overwhelming majority of our students have secured enough financial aid to make a private college education affordable, even in today's economy.
Make no mistake, private colleges and universities throughout the country are also facing financial challenges. Like all families, private colleges face tightening budgets. However, institutions such as Randolph-Macon College are doing everything possible -- and digging deep to protect financial aid and ensure that a quality private-college education remains affordable and accessible.
According to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), a very large percentage of full-time students at private colleges and universities receive some form of financial aid. For example, Randolph-Macon awarded $28.8 million in financial aid to our students in 2008! Additionally, Virginia residents attending a Virginia private college receive an annual $3,200 Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) from the Commonwealth.
After weighing the total financial aid packages offered, many parents and prospective students have determined that private colleges are indeed as affordable as a public institution.
I would also like to dispel the myth that private colleges are filled with wealthy students. The reality is that private colleges are filled with students from across the financial spectrum. Colleges such as Randolph-Macon attract students from all ethnic, geographic, and economic backgrounds.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics reports that students attending private colleges have a lower average family income than students enrolled at public institutions. In addition, private colleges on average enroll a larger percentage of Pell Grant recipients and minority students than public colleges and universities.
A study by NAICU also shows that nationally, 79 percent of all graduates from private institutions earn their bachelor's degrees in four years or fewer compared with 49 percent of those from similar public institutions. Therefore, private college graduates are able to finish paying tuition and start earning a salary sooner!
Of course, the hallmark of a private college education is the personal attention we offer students -- from the time they apply and throughout their academic career. Our classes are small, and our students benefit from one-on-one interaction with full professors (not graduate students), the opportunity to gain valuable "real world" experience through meaningful internships, and the ability to experience other cultures through exciting study abroad programs.
Another key advantage of our size is that we work individually with families during difficult economic times. Our admissions and financial aid staffs are dedicated to helping families based on their individual areas of need.
Unlike the vulnerability of the stock market, investing in a private-college education reaps a lifetime of returns. Why? Not only do we prepare students to be successful in the workplace and graduate school, but we also believe in the long-term value of a "well-rounded" liberal-arts education.
In today's competitive marketplace, the ability to think critically, analytically, and creatively and to communicate well are the most valuable attributes sought by employers in all professions. Liberal arts colleges such as Randolph-Macon focus on the development of these essential skills as our primary mission, and our graduates become leaders in their fields over time as a result.
Jobs that are here today might well be obsolete tomorrow. Our students are well-equipped, not just for their first job after graduation, but to be successful in a lifetime of changing and rewarding careers.
Private-college educations are still affordable and more valuable than ever. On Saturday, Jan. 24, starting at 10 a.m., Randolph-Macon and 24 other Virginia private colleges will hold a special, one-day session on their campuses to help families learn how this education remains within reach financially.
Finally, an investment today in a liberal arts education for your children is one that will pay a lifetime of dividends for them and for our society. Robert R. Lindgren is president of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. Contact him at https://secure.rmc.edu/president/. For more information on the Jan. 24 session, visit the Council of Independent College's Web site: http://www.cicv.org/Affordability.aspx or http://www.rmc.edu.