Making a Dartmouth education worth the price

by John Strayer | 11/12/93 6:00am

Over the summer a friend of mine from high school asked me, "How do you justify spending $10,000 more than me every year for college? In other words, after college will you have an education worth $40,000 more than mine?"

His question forced me to stop and think about the value of a Dartmouth education.

Many of us take it for granted. Some even flippantly talk about how there is no better education anywhere, but have these people actually thought about what makes one education better than another.

Between 30 and 40 percent of Dartmouth students have had a long time to practice the art of justifying their expensive educations. These are the students who went to private high schools or so-called "prep schools" where the tuition is as high as a good liberal arts college in the Midwest.

Meanwhile, my high school education was paid for with about $2,000 in property taxes, $200 a year for books, and an extra $50 my sophomore year to take drivers-ed.

So it is fair to say that one year of my high school education was at least $10,000 cheaper (a conservative estimate) than many prep-schools.

Did these prep students get a high school education that was $40,000 better than mine? We could take a battery of tests but the answer is in front of us: here we are, together at Dartmouth with the exact same opportunities.

I would be willing to bet that at the end of four years the public school students do just as well, if not better than their private school counterparts.

It is clear then, that in education you don't necessarily get what you pay for.

We return to the original question: is Dartmouth worth it? If so, how does one justify it?

Instinctively I know the answer. But I cannot sit in Denny's, sip my coffee and tell my best friend from high school that instinctively I know that my experience has nearly double the value of his. I must have reasons.

I cannot say, small classes, pretty campus, fun-loving students, or a successful football team because all these things can be found at institutions far less expensive than Dartmouth.

Even if I try to compare academic opportunities he can counter that the student at the University of Illinois (in state tuition less than $10,000) who studies hard and takes advantage of his resources (such as a huge library) comes out with an "education" which is at least equal to mine in the academic sense.

Some of my classmates will justify the cost in two words "starting salary." It may be the case that our Dartmouth education will give us some advantages in the work force. But for some, myself included, that is too distant from purpose of being here to justify the expense of the place.

In the end there is no tangible answer to the question, "Is Dartmouth worth it?" except to say that it definitely isn't worth it if you don't ask the question. If one can't at least instinctively say "yes" then something is wrong and there is only one person who can do anything about it.

If over Christmas break my friend once again challenges me to justify the price of my education, I will look up from my coffee and try to explain to him what it is like to be walking to class on a crisp autumn day, when the sum shining on Baker Tower forces you to start whistling the Alma Mater. He probably won't get it, but I imagine you do.

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