Spring 2024 /The Value of the Liberal Arts/

Stray Thoughts: Questions About the Value and the Cost of College

You learn a lot at high school sports events, and not just about which parents will yell at the refs or snipe about their son’s or daughter’s playing time.

Sitting in the stands at our son’s water polo games and swim meets a few years back, I’d listen as people talked about their children and college. The University of California schools dominated the conversation along with occasional Ivy League or military academy aspirations, and sometimes the firm conviction that community college was the smart way to go.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the anti-college sentiment. There was a dad who had earned a nice living and built a good family life while working as a manager somewhere in the vast port complex along the Southern California coast. For the life of him, he couldn’t understand why his son wanted to go to college to study finance when he could set him up on the waterfront. But it was another father’s comments that stopped me cold. What he wanted for his son was “anything but college,” an attitude I’ve shortened in my mind to ABC.

I didn’t know him well enough to know if his attitude was tied up in the political divide over higher education, with some on the right viewing colleges and universities as places only for those on the left. Perhaps it reflected his own experience: He must have done well without college, building a business in construction, I think, so why did his son need to spend four years and tens if not hundreds of thousands looking for another way?

Education as the route to a better life is deeply entrenched among many lower-income and immigrant families, often convinced that having a doctor in the family is the way to success. High-income families with a tradition of college-going value education, too—perhaps for itself, perhaps as a way for their children to be able to match the standard of living they have attained, or perhaps as a matter of pride or prestige.

But among middle-income families, it has become more hit and miss. While the national conversation about what colleges can do to enroll low-income students has grown louder over the past decade, it’s safe to say that the conversation about what’s being done for middle-income families largely has been sidelined. Although Pomona meets the full demonstrated need of all students who are eligible for need-based aid—and without loans—many middle-income families don’t look past the published tuition number.

When I ran into a woman I know and learned her daughter had just been awarded a Fulbright after graduating from a small liberal arts-focused university in the Pacific Northwest that offers merit aid, I congratulated her and mentioned that I work at Pomona. “We looked at Pomona but didn’t even apply after we saw the price tag,” she told me. I felt a sting, but it was too late to urge her to run the MyinTuition calculator (myintuition.org), which also can be found on Pomona’s Admissions web pages.

As Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr writes on page 40 in introducing our Middle Income Initiative, Pomona is taking a new approach on financial aid. We will continue our longstanding financial support for lower-income students and expand support for students from middle-income families to make Pomona more accessible to students from a full range of incomes.

That’s because while we proudly reflect the array of races and ethnicities in this country, we do not reflect the full economic spectrum.

Let’s see what we can do about that.