Newsflash: Excellence Costs Money!

So says Sarah Lawrence College President Karen Lawrence about her college’s rating as the most expensive in the U.S.:

That’s partly because over 90 percent of all Sarah Lawrence classes are small seminars (with an average of 11 students) and every seminar includes a “conference” component in which each student designs an independent project and meets biweekly with the professor to confer on progress. This is essentially a tutorial in the Oxford-Cambridge tradition. Also in that tradition, we assign each student a don, a full-time faculty member who serves as his or her adviser, mentor, and intellectual guide. Donning is necessary because Sarah Lawrence students are accountable for designing their own education in a curriculum with concentrations instead of majors, so the don’s expertise and individual knowledge of each student is consequently invaluable in helping chart the best possible academic course.

Like much at Sarah Lawrence, donning may be difficult to justify on a purely economic basis, as is our refusal to use graduate students as teaching assistants or our insistence on providing extensive written evaluations of each student in each course in addition to grades. But we maintain these standards because we believe the customized, “handcrafted” education we provide helps ensure that each student achieves his or her greatest potential. And like anything handcrafted, it is significantly more cost-intensive, and thus more costly, than what’s produced on an assembly line.

This kind of education isn’t for everyone, but is there any doubt that for those students who are ready to take advantage of it that it offers substantial benefits over what other institutions offer?  Discuss!  (Full disclosure:  I’m a SLAC grad, and I rarely had classes with more than 20 students in them.  Even many of our “lecture” classes were taught around a seminar table and focused at least half on discussions of the assigned readings.)

0 thoughts on “Newsflash: Excellence Costs Money!

  1. Sounds like a great place to be a student, but exhausting for the faculty! If each class involves normal prep, plus 3 hours of group meeting, plus about 11 hours of additional meetings (11 students x 2 meetings a week @ 1/2 hour each), well that’s pretty intensive. I wonder what the teaching load is? And whether faculty also are required to produce research? And whether they are paid handsomely?

    OTOH, pedagogically, this sounds like a fabulous education for the students.


  2. Actually, Historiann, I’m not sure why you would say “This kind of education isn’t for everyone.” I don’t think I can think of a single student I’ve known who wouldn’t benefit from such an intensive educational experience.


  3. Yeah, I went to a top research university and, for some reason I still haven’t figured out, the small class size was a defining feature of the history department. I never had a course in the history department that was a lecture which then broke down into discussion sections on another day. Class time was combo lecture/discussion. It’s been weird for me realizing that people are convinced that lecture is the sole way to convey content and that a class isn’t rigorous if it’s not a straight lecture.

    That being said, the cost of Sarah Lawrence truly is prohibitive, unless they have amazing aid packages. That’s certainly the kind of education people should have–and I’m a firm believer that that’s what’s required for history–but I wonder about the more moderate ways of achieving that that require more money than we’re currently spending but less money than Sarah Lawrence requires.


  4. @Tom: I don’t think the benefits for everyone were in question, but it does take a certain kind of student (determination, personality, etc) to take full advantage of that kind of structure and opportunity. Not everyone would thrive in “such an intensive educational experience.”


  5. I was going to go anonymous, but realized it doesn’t really matter if I out myself on this one.

    I’m a Sarah Lawrence alum, and I will sing its praises to anyone who strays into my path. The small class sizes were great, but even better were the conferences (or tutorials) with the professors. 30 minutes of a prof’s undivided attention on a student’s first steps into research goes a long way.

    Squadratomagico – obviously I was largely oblivious while I was a student, but I believe a typical load is 2-2, though I know of several instances where it was 2-1 or 1-1. On average, I think class time equals 4 hrs/week, plus the conferences, which meet every other week – so for two classes of 15, you’re looking at an additional 8 hours/week, plus prep. First year studies seminars were viewed as a major time suck, as the prof is also the advisor for everyone in the class, and so they meet for conference every week. Again, though, I know of profs who reduced their loads to 1-1 during years when they taught FYS, presumably with an increase in service.

    There are definitely research expectations, though I think they’re on the lighter end. The pay is, sadly, not particularly fantastic (especially for Westchester County), though the Chronicle’s salary survey suggests it’s not as bad as I had feared.

    Thefrogprincess- True about the cost, but the fact is that any uni in the US is expensive. When all was said and done, I had offers from 5 schools, and Sarah Lawrence was the cheapest option. I wasn’t offered any scholarships, but federal aid ends up equalizing universities with varied tuitions. My second choice, which at the time was about $20,000 cheaper than SLC, would have actually cost my family about $2,000 more per year. If you’re comparing SLACs to state schools where instate tuition is under $10,000, then yeah, there’s going to be a discrepancy; but, at least in my case, it came down to $20,000 at a state school for tuition and housing, or $20,000 at Sarah Lawrence for the same thing.

    Ugh, sorry for the long post – I’ll go write more on my own blog.


  6. @Liz: I hear you. And if a student lacks the determination and personal investment to take advantage of “such an intensive educational experience” then they don’t belong at a SLAC — or perhaps at any college at that point in their lives.


  7. What a wonder model! When I first realized what Oxbridge-style meant, I was horrified. My professors (at the MA level) were so bad at mentoring that the thought of having to face them one-on-one was overwhelming. However, at RNU (a SLAC) we have very small classes (mine are usually around 10), and I personally mentor most of my students through my classes. Lots of personal contact and support – although still nothing like SLC. I’d do more, but do a 4/4, which is exhausting and has had disastrous impact on my research (yes, we’re still expected to do some, though not a lot).

    My undergrad featured small classes – it was an urban state college, but had sufficient coverage that only a few of my classes had more than 20 students. My MA institution in the UC system had enormous undergrad classes – an upper division history class might have 60 students. The professors hated teaching or contact with students, regarded teaching and students as intrusions, and treated their students as idiots. My PhD institution wasn’t bad – but undergrad classes were in the 100s and very little mentoring at the undergrad level. Much better about grad students, but not really active mentors. I was very fortunate in that my major advisor had gone through Oxford, and adopted their methods of pedagogy. By that time, I reveled in that model.


  8. Tom, Liz, & Jake–what Liz & Jake said completes my thoughts. There are some students for whom a more traditional model works better, personality- and ambition-wise. I agree with Tom that all students *could* benefit from the Sarah Lawrence model, but whether they would or not is a big question.

    I’m pro-choice and pro-diversity: one of the strengths of the U.S. “system” (really a non-system jumble of public and private, small and large, secular and sectarian, etc.) of higher education is its diversity. Lectures to classes of 800 aren’t my style, but as Squadrato points out, the intensive Oxbridge tutorial model might not be either.

    What we might have appreciated as students may or may not be what we’re looking for as faculty members, too. I once interviewed at a SLAC on the “block” model, which meant teaching 7 courses one at a time for 3-1/2 weeks at a time through the traditional academic year (September through May.) The classes were small, but it just sounded really exhausting (especially because classes met DAILY from 9-12 for those 3-1/2 weeks!)


  9. It has been surprising to me that Big Midwestern University is pushing the exact opposite of this. They want our classes as big as possible to be “cost efficient”. It seems to me that can only hurt our rankings in the future.


  10. I want to be the contrarian in this case. A world of state schools with large number of students can serve society well. Private, expensive, small and special schools encourage an elite that is already swallowing all the resource of the land bleeding the poor and the middle class dry.

    I had a somewhat similar discussion when my first looking for a college more than 20 years ago. He wanted a private university and I was claiming that many friends of mine and myself are all were graduates of a large country, not the US, school. We also got tenured in the US in top schools. He went to “his” private school and got tenured at a very top school. I, however, still strongly believe in regular, bare ones and straightforward universities.


  11. I love the sanctimonious part about “refusing to use graduate students” as TA’s. But then a bare fifteen months later–when they’re at least nominally degreed– you don’t buy the quarter page advertisement in the AHA rag to brag that you’ve just hired and are turning loose on your classes someone who will be up all night writing lectures and figuring out the rest of the “handcraft.” Rather, you emphasize the “cutting edge” character of their scholarship. Which they may or may not be able to actually wedge in between their “donning” gigs.


  12. Indyanna- While they might be up all night grading papers, they won’t be writing any lectures. At my undergrad SLAC, I had only three courses where professors lectured. And all three of those profs left (one didn’t get tenure, two moved on to bigger private schools with different expectations. Of the three, one was a great teacher (Hey there Amy-Jill Levine!) who ably mixed lectures with discussions for a class of 20 or so, one was a disaster, and the other was an okay lecturer but couldn’t run a discussion to save her life.

    None of these people had to lecture, but all chose to, in varying amounts. But really, in a class with 9 people, why are you lecturing in anything more than a, here’s a quick 10 minutes to fill in some gaps in the reading, is just silly.


  13. I expect I *could* have benefitted from a Sarah Lawrence-type experience. Certainly I would have avoided some wrong turns and blind alleys in my education, and might have majored in what I really should have majored in. But I was an independent-minded little cuss (okay, I guess I still am) who probably would have needed to rebel against careful one-on-one nurturing. I loved my huge UC alma mater because I could go my own way and work things out for myself. Most students didn’t bother to go to office hours and most of my professors seemed delighted to talk to me when I showed up with questions. Only the pre-tenure one was less welcoming. It really is a personality difference: some of us just aren’t small-town or small-college types.


  14. Woot! I’m an assembly line worker. That should give me serious reality-show style cred, shouldn’t it? Me and Rosie the Riveter: totally alike!

    My small Regional Comprehensive University, at the same time that it’s trying to ‘position itself’ as a research institution, also loves to trumpet the small class experience here. I look around and ask “Where?”

    It’s a numbers game here: other departments with waning enrolments combined with our second language stream with often teensy enrolments, averaged with the class sizes of the huge Anglophone classes I teach? Sounds small but it’s a sham. When I can’t get a class under 80 students except at a senior seminar (ranging from 18-38 there), it’s a mockery, isn’t it?


  15. I went a small, liberal art college where there were never more than 15 in a class. You could design independent studies, have hands on field trips and be assured your teacher knew your name, where you lived and your blood type (kidding about the last one!). It was wonderful. It was not, however, as expensive as Sarah Lawrence because it was in the middle of no where southwest and no one has heard of it. It costs a bit more than 1/2 of Sarah Lawrence’s tuition. More expensive than a large public school, yes, but not 57,000 a year. So for students who don’t want to pay that much, there are options that offer a similar style quality at a lower price. But I agree you can’t pay 10,000 a year and get that quality.


  16. De-lurking to weigh in, as a former Sadie Lou girl in the process of finishing my PhD. I’ll start by seconding Vaulting’s assessment of the seminar model and the course load (though I’ll also cop to being fairly oblivious to my professors’ teaching obligations).

    I’ll add my own experience with the language program, which necessarily deviated from the seminar format, and was far superior to that of the Ivy I currently attend. This has something to do with class size, but it also has a lot to do with the pedagogical objectives of the two models. My current institution is concerned largely with having students pass placement tests and keeping them in a specific language “track,” so that they can funnel students through the various levels without losing any to fatigue (weirdly, the requirement here has students taking three semesters of “language” in general, meaning many do one semester of French, one of Arabic, and one of German, without gaining proficiency in any of them). Thus, language courses are primarily grammar and vocab drills, no matter how cleverly we try to disguise them, and it is not uncommon to encounter seniors majoring in a national literature essentially unable to speak or work in the language of their degree.

    When I was at SLC–a little more than 10 years ago–language students encountered three types of classroom settings each week, designed to develop specific skills: traditional frontal instruction for grammar and writing (2x, 1:30); audiovisual comprehension activities (1x, 1:30); and small conversation sessions with native speakers (3-4 students, 2x, 0:45). While this model would be prohibitively expensive and impractical at a larger institution, the focus on skills and actual language proficiency, rather than test-taking proficiency, is something I would dearly like to see more widely adopted.

    I adored SLC, and in some ways I was very well prepared for grad school, in that I was comfortable with independent research and longer writing projects. However, the near-total absence of course requirements meant I came to the PhD with some substantial lacunae: while I knew the Italian canon up and down, my knowledge of critical theory was spotty. It’s the old know-a-lot-about-a-little or a-little-about-a-lot conundrum; each presents a different set of challenges for grads entering degree programs/the workplace.


  17. As a Vassar College undergraduate and a University of Washington Grad, I thought I received the best of both worlds – small classes, access to fabulous faculty, liberal arts exposure inside and outside the classroom, AND the large state university experience, though filtered through the intensity and intimacy of graduate seminars. I agree with some above that the expense of a SLAC or Vassar education smacks of privileged elitism (and some of my class mates are, perhaps, running amok on Wall Street as we speak), BUT others are national advocates for Gay and Lesbian Rights, Environmentalists in Oregon, Musicians in Boston, Poets in Detroit (yes, stubbornly remaining) – in other words some are the last vestiges of Progressive idealism in America. My current students at a mid-tier state University are mostly pragmatic, if disengaged. Many feel that the system is stacked against them, not because of the SLAC’s out there, but because they receive media messages that ethical and moral choices aren’t always rewarded, that somehow intellectual effort is suspect. They want simple answers, simple narratives that confirm, not nuances/ambiguities that challenge. I insist on challenging, despite the frustration that students here don’t read, don’t discuss – the 1 or 2 full blown lightbulbs a year are so worth it.


  18. yeay for sara lawrence, yeay for the SLACs, yeay privilege.

    I went to state universities for BA, MA and PhD. I got a lot of the same things from my education that Italianist, KJ and others did at their SLACS.

    Of course, those state schools are being gutted now, because the wealthiest among us refuse to pay taxes proportional to their privilege. Part of their justification is that its hard to be rich. IT turns out that sending your kid to a private day school and then a private college is expensive.


  19. I got into a number of SLACs (Hampshire, St. John’s Annapolis, Hendrix), but went to the giant state school instead, and I’m glad I did. I had the tiny research seminars in my major, but otherwise took giant lecture classes and loved it. I would take classes way outside my comfort zone (accounting, formal logic, organic chemistry), and the lecture+discussion format made it a safe place. In fact, those were some of my favorite classes. If it had been a ten person class with the prof up my ass about the readings, there’s no way I would have taken those classes. The very last thing I wanted was “intensity and intimacy,” as Jane put it.


  20. I could see the seminar-style classes being terrific for humanities, which really require discussion and consideration. It wouldn’t fit well for undergraduate engineering, probably not for most physical sciences either. However, I’d be in favor of seeing more faculty-student interaction on research projects; this instead tends to get shuffled off onto industry, in the form of internships (which vary widely in quality and utility for the student).


  21. My friend is a first-generation college student from rural PA and she (I don’t remember how) went to a really small elite SLAC, with small classes which expected everyone to speak in discussion. She mentioned once that it was *miserable* — she had never had anyone particularly care what she thought, much less put her on the spot for it, and she regularly vomited before going to seminar, out of stage fright. She says she eventually became accustomed to it (to an extent — I know she still found the class biases offputting) and that when the whole thing was over she found she had grown immensely, but her experience speaks to the idea that not all personality types would be used to or comfortable with the SLAC teaching style.

    Nor are they all well-fitted to the huge research university style, but some are — I really loved the fact that none of my profs knew me and I had to *make* them notice me —- I liked the idea of being a really small fish in a big big pond who needed to eat some of the other fish and get bigger to get any notice.


  22. On class bias. Look, not all SLACs are equal but at Swarthmore if your family makes 60,000 a year or less, and that income doesn’t come from clipping bond coupons, you’re not going to pay a dime. A family of four could with two kids in college and an income of 104,000 (hardly middle class) would spend about 15,000 for tuition room and board and other expenses. They’d pay about that for just tuition at Penn State. Obviously Swat is one of the wealthier SLACs.

    And their engineering is pretty damn good while teaching in small seminar style.


  23. There is, presumably, a continuum between the intensity of SL and the anonymous huge classes. As many have noted, what works is a matter in part of personality. I suspect there are times we do things in big lectures that make a huge difference, but even more, i see lightbulbs go on in small groups or individual conversations — when I manage to ask the right question for someone. By and large, I think that education works best when there is some kind of relationship.

    The class bias, though, is an issue: not so much in terms of cost, at least at the really rich places. But more in being surrounded by people who have lots of money and take it for granted, and by the cultural assumptions and practices of upper middle class culture.


  24. Susan–I think you’re right on both points. Institutions and departments can make it easier or more difficult for faculty and students to make those relationships.

    And on class bias: although having an on-campus or off-campus job wasn’t exactly exotic when I was in college, it always blew me away when someone would sit and muse about what she’d do over summer break: “Should I go to Europe, again, or should I go somewhere else? South America?” I, on the other hand, knew exactly what I’d be doing if I wanted to return to school in the fall. But, I didn’t resent it–I was able to live with friends in a big city and still save up enough dough. The idea that summers were for leisure or travel was just like an idea from outer space.


  25. I didn’t mean that small engineering classes would be bad quality. The quality of engineering instruction shouldn’t suffer from being taught in smaller-scale classes — it’s all the same math regardless of how many people are in the room.

    It’s more that the difference in what a student can get out of a small, close-knit class, vs. a large lecture presentation, is smaller for engineering. I have seen the same level of engagement (or disinterest) from engineering students in large lecture settings, and in small classes. When I was looking for schools, and if my kids are looking at an engineering career for themselves, I wouldn’t put “small class size” high on the list of priorities. (Attentive faculty who welcome one-on-one interaction, or some “don” system, that I would be interested in.)

    To broadly stereotype, engineers are rarely the sort of people who enjoy talking about opinions or perspectives; so, discussion-based seminars? Not overflowing with engineers. This is unfortunate, because I think understanding the ethical, socioeconomic, and/or cultural implications of products is important for engineers, but there you go.


  26. Retrochef–I thought you raised a good point about how disciplinary differences might play into what makes for an ideal teaching environment. In fact, as I posted yesterday, I was wondering what STEM folks would think about the Sarah Lawrence model–and assuming that they’d be skeptical of the relative value of the intensive tutoring/mentoring in teaching basic courses. But as you noted above, the SLC model could be used fruitfully for more one-on-one mentoring in labs and on student projects.


  27. Historiann, I have nothing substantive to add to the discussion, but allow me to say: this comment

    “it always blew me away when someone would sit and muse about what she’d do over summer break: “Should I go to Europe, again, or should I go somewhere else? South America?”

    so resonates!!!

    Or the students who’d say, brightly, “Yes, of course I’m working over the summer! I’m doing six weeks at an unpaid internship in my father’s college roommate’s architectural firm! After that, Switzerland!”


  28. Pingback: What would a post coverage model history survey course look like?, Part III. « More or Less Bunk

  29. Retrochef already touched upon what my opinion is of this for engineering programs. I preferred my large 300 person lectures to the small ones. Felt like things flowed a lot more. Engineering at my large state school seemed to have kind of a sink or swim mentality, which I don’t think is completely out of place. You start to form friendships and bonds in the smaller project classes but the larger classes show you you mostly have to teach yourself these basics because that’s what engineering is, proving you can teach yourself new disciplines. And working in engineering is a lot like these large classes were to me, there isn’t always a senior person who cares a whole lot about your work, YOU have to seek them out.

    I would like to see more flexibility in these kinds of things for liberal arts. When I was studying humanities, I was so low on units I ended up taking a wide variety of political science, sociology, history, urban studies, music and philosophy classes. Some of the ones I took on accident are ones I really fondly remember today and am very happy I took. On the other hand, most of the engineers I knew hated writing and I couldn’t see them “expanding” their engineering horizons to a liberal arts understanding. And yet, while it was personally fulfilling I think it’s misleading to coach kids through these programs so that they can get their homecrafted major in Ancient Babylonian Economics & Art and find themselves unemployable and with freakishly high student loans.

    I keep thinking there’s a better place for liberal arts for the masses, something that promotes societal and cultural life long learning rather than as part of a university program disguising itself as a career stepping stone. Not everyone has the time and patience to spend extra years studying for their own fulfillment or to make up for gaps in their career readiness.


  30. As I read this:
    I thought of this post; Sullivan’s comment — “The important things are not worth knowing because they are useful. They are worth knowing because they are true.”

    and @ Historiann: when I taught at a SLAC many years ago, I remember overhearing one student say to another, “I have $3000 to spend for spring break. Where should I go.” All I could think was that that was more than I earned in a month…


  31. I did a science degree at Oxbridge – we had huge lectures (700+ in one of my first year options), moderately sized lab groups (15-20 students to one TA, with 5 such groups under the overall supervision of an academic – 6 hours per week per science), and small tutorials (2-3 students with a specialist) – in the more mathematical disciplines like say physics we did problem sheets and went over areas of confusion from the lectures, in more biological subjects we often read, wrote essays, then discussed them in the tutorial. It allowed the lecture courses to proceed very fast over material, knowing that individual issues would be picked up in the tutorial system – no need to focus the lecture on the lower-middle of the class to give everyone a fair chance of keeping up, which I find is the case at my current (perfectly respectable) university.

    It suited me wonderfully – school had really hemmed me in, I only survived the last couple of years of physics without getting into real trouble for messing around (when you spend a 40 minute period going over something you got in the first 5 minutes, the temptation to mess around, distract other people or, er, connect the bunsen burner to the water tap and see if you could get an accurate hit on the class waste-bin from the back row was high) because of an understanding teacher who let me read Plato in class as long as I got good marks on the assignments (the agreement was that I would read something ‘intellectually meaty’ so I worked my way through most of Plato and some Aristotle and other Greeks in translation). At my current place, I reckon 5-10% of the students could adapt to it and benefit very quickly, within a semester. Most of the others just aren’t ready for the sustained academic work needed, or aren’t passionate enough about their subject to want to do it, or aren’t personally ready (though small tutorial groups are much ‘safer’ than 10-15 people in a seminar, I find – perhaps because you really do know all the other people in the room quite well). For some of them, this is because they have been very badly let down by the school system, which has hammered any curiosity or originality right out of them…


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