Students & Parents | Costs

Council of Trustees & Alumni: Top Liberal Arts Colleges Offer ‘Empty Promise’

COLLEGE FIX   |  January 28, 2014 by Jennifer Kabbany

REPORT: Elite colleges’ tuitions far outpace inflation; campus presidents earn as much as POTUS; curriculums lack important basics.

The 29 institutions ranked as the top liberal arts colleges in the nation have raised tuition and fees 6.2 percent to 17.1 percent above inflation over the last few years—this despite the fact that the average endowment of each of the schools is almost $1 billion, according to a report released Monday.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s “Education or Reputation?” report also found 18 of the 29 schools pay their campus presidents as much as or more than the president of the United States’ annual salary of $400,000, even though most of these colleges typically enroll fewer than 2,000 students.

“For a lot of them, their priority is maintaining their prestige, their rankings in U.S. News & World Report,” Avi Synder, a program officer for the council, said in an interview Monday with The College Fix. “That drives a lot of mismanagement of funds.”

“These aren’t big research universities,” he added. “The idea that they warrant a base salary compensation higher than the president of the United States is a pretty shocking assertion.”

To develop its findings, the council looked at institutions listed by U.S. News & World Report as the “Top 25” liberal arts colleges and universities nationwide. Several “ties” in the rankings raised the number of schools surveyed by the council to 29.

“Many of these elite institutions are steadily raising their costs,” the report states. “Over the five years between 2007-08 and 2012-13—in other words, over the course of America’s Great Recession—these institutions increased their ‘sticker price’ anywhere from 6.2 percent to 17.1 percent, adjusted for inflation.”

“Given the full cost of attendance, an undergraduate degree would total between $213,000 and $245,000. In all cases, a single year’s attendance exceeds the national median household income of $52,762. It is not comforting to know that at many of these institutions, expenditures on administration exceeded one-third the amount spent on instruction; in one instance, more than 58 percent.”

Underscoring these findings, the 56-page also report pointed out curriculum deficiencies at the 29 colleges, noting that none of them except for the three military academies on the list require a foundational, college-level course in American history or government. What’s more, only two require an economics course and only five require a literature course.

The council declared the inexplicable rising costs coupled with haphazard curriculums an “empty promise” by these colleges.

“These schools, the top liberal arts schools in the country, they don’t actually offer what we consider a well-rounded liberal arts education … like what many of them offered many decades ago,” Snyder said.

He added that council members believe it’s up to the trustees of all these colleges to make hard, necessary changes across the board to fix what’s broken.

The institutions surveyed in the report are: Amherst, Grinnell, Hamilton, Middlebury, Vassar, College of the Holy Cross, Bates, Bowdoin, Haverford, Oberlin, Smith, Swarthmore, Wesleyan, Williams, Colby, Colgate, Harvey Mudd, Macalester, Pomona, University of Richmond, Claremont McKenna, Davidson, Scripps, Washington & Lee, and Wellesley colleges and universities, as well as the United States Air Force Academy, the United States Military Academy, and the United States Naval Academy, that latter three of which do not charge tuition.

The nearly 20-year-old American Council of Trustees and Alumni, based in Washington, D.C., describes itself as “an independent, nonprofit organization committed to academic freedom, academic excellence, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.”


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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