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Is college worth the money?

THE ANNUAL trials and tribulations of college acceptance are over for most students and parents. The vast majority of college-bound high school seniors now know where they'll be going to school in the fall.

What never seems to end for students and parents, however, is understandable anxiety over paying for college. The relentless rise in the costs of higher education alarms payers and the public. According to the College Board, over the last 10 years average tuition and fees rose 51 percent at public four-year colleges and 36 percent at private institutions, outpacing the consumer price index. Undergraduate tuition and fees at elite private schools such as Harvard grew even faster. For example, Harvard undergraduate tuition and fees are $27,448 this year, up from $17,851 in 1995 and $9,500 in 1985. With room and board added, next year's bill at Harvard will be an attention-getting $42,000. That's as much as the average family income in the United States.

College officials must take this issue more seriously. There's no question political leaders feel the heat. In response to a growing public outcry over escalating college costs in the late '90s, Congress established the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education. The commission's report, while politically safe, offered some useful recommendations. As is often the case, however, the commission's work produced few results. College costs continued to rise far faster than inflation or family income.

Now the drumbeat to reform ever-rising college costs is once again echoing throughout Washington. Can a new round of congressional hearings be far away?

But the focus on the cost of higher education misses a fundamental point. The real question is whether students are getting their money's worth. In most other consumer markets, cost is a function of quality, real or perceived. This is a fact of life when purchasing a luxury car or high-caliber professional services. There is a ''value paradox" in higher education, however, since families rarely consider cost in the context of the quality delivered. That's partly because most colleges don't know how to measure their quality. But if education is truly an investment in a young person, shouldn't we be able to understand the return on that investment? By focusing on cost alone, we're avoiding more serious conversations about value.

Most parents are willing to invest or borrow $100,000 to help produce highly employable graduates with proven critical thinking and communication skills and strong professional preparation. Because a college graduate earns nearly $1 million more in pay over a working career than a high school graduate, while the same college tuition investment in the stock market would yield more than $2 million over that same period, we had better insist the value of higher education be measured in more than cost terms.

Focusing on educational value, and not solely on cost, means that students, parents, faculty, and administrators must ask tough questions. For example, who's doing the teaching? What are students really learning? Perhaps a student is willing to pay a high price for education when professors, not graduate student teaching assistants, are guaranteed to teach the course and grade the papers. Maybe a parent is willing to pay market rates for a course whose small class size lets professors establish personal working relationships with students. Right now, many professors prefer their research ''opportunities" over their teaching ''load." Yet isn't it obvious the quality of education erodes when professors are absent, classes are unmanageably large, or most students get honor grades?

Parents and school leaders might also ask how well colleges prepare students to become economically productive, community-minded citizens. Will the graduate get a good job at a fine salary, making the investment worthwhile?

Colleges also need to work harder at serving students long after graduation. For their considerable investment, alumni should receive a lifetime of services to help with their professional and personal growth. While some colleges offer engaging, high-quality alumni services, many do not. And students certainly lose out when they fail to think of their college investment in terms of its lifetime value.

As the cost discussion heats up again, it's imperative that we define it in terms of quality as well as cost. Only then can we achieve a true measure of the value we receive from investments in higher education. When higher education is assessed in value terms, it seems inevitable that students and parents will demand proven, verifiable outcomes that measure the return on their considerable investment.

Daniel S. Cheever Jr. is president of Simmons College in Boston.

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