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A private liberal arts education can be a pricey aspiration.

Sarah Lawrence College in New York, the most expensive school in the country, carries a price tag of $53,166 a year, including tuition, room and board. Fellow liberal arts school Connecticut College costs $49,385 per year. Skidmore in New York ($49,266) or Scripps in California ($49,236) are also expensive. Sure, you can always apply for scholarships and grants. But what if you get none? Gulp.

Affordability now comes first for many families, thus MainStreet's weekly series on higher education's “hidden gems.”

This week’s profile is the State University of New York at Geneseo, a small liberal arts college which also happens to be a state school, and thus costs a fraction of places like Maine’s Bates College (about $49,350 annually) or Middlebury in Vermont ($42,910).

To their credit, the pricier schools offer brand recognition and a smaller-sized school community. “It’s not [just] the academics that’s the attraction. It’s the social environment," says Dean Skarlis, President of The College Advisor of New York, a college admissions and financial aid coaching service. "It’s that you know everyone. It’s the scale of everything,” he says. But that is not to say expensive private schools are the only places you can find these qualities.

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The old perception about college used to be “the more you pay, the more you get.”  The recession is changing that view, as indicated by the increase in quality applicants at Geneseo and at other public schools for that matter.

At Geneseo, applications are up 5%, translating into 11 applications for each seat in the freshmen class. More significantly, the quality of the application pool has improved. The freshman class has an average SAT (verbal and math) score of about 1326 out of 1600, up from 1313 in the previous year. “It indicates that we are attracting…people who would normally go to a very private, selective college,” says Bill Caren, associate vice president for enrollment services at SUNY Genesco.

A 70% Discount Is Worth a Look
Tuition for in-state students, who make up 98% of the student body at Geneseo, is just under $5,000 plus another $9,000 for room and board. In four years that’s $52,000. Out of state students pay roughly $88,000 for four years. Compared to the costs of attending, say, Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts or Franklin and Marshall in Pennsylvania, which can cost up to $190,000 for four years, it’s hard to justify the double-to-triple sized price tag.  At that point defining value becomes a question. “When you go on a college tour [at a private liberal arts school] ask, ‘Can you tell me why my daughter or son is going to get a three times better education here than at in-state school?’ That’s a really hard [question] for someone to answer,” says Skarlis.

Size Does Matter
Like private institutions, Geneseo boasts a small learning community—a must when recreating the private liberal arts experience—of 5,300 full-time undergraduates. The student-teacher ratio is 19 to one. And for what it’s worth, the campus, as you can see in the photo here, is quite picturesque.  “It looks like a small private college, on a hillside overlooking a valley,” says Caren. “We have the quintessential college town, almost something out of a storybook.” What’s more, since the school has very few graduate students, more than 90% of the courses are taught by full-time faculty members.  Even when the recession ends, a public liberal arts education won’t necessarily be dismissed. “I think that there will be a structural change in higher education,” says Caren.  “A group of public institutions will become much more highly regarded and valued. Not many, but a group.”

Fast Facts

  • Notable alumni: Jackie Norris, chief of staff for First Lady Michelle Obama, and Brian Saluzzo, managing director of Goldman Sachs & Co., are among distinguished alumni.
  • Job placement stats from 2008: 51% of graduates are employed full-time, 7% are employed part-time and 39% are attending graduate school.
  • Proximity to NYC: A “rural” town, Geneseo is five hours away from New York City. But it's just an hour away from Rochester!