Top Colleges Just Coast on Reputation, Nonprofit Says

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Much has been written and many hands have been wrung over the constantly rising high cost of a college education.

The College Board reports that the annual cost of attending a private four-year school has risen from $16,979 in 1973-74 to $40,917 in four decades.

That's way ahead of the rate of inflation, and it's a huge case of sticker shock for college planning-weary American parents.

Now there's more cause for angst: The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks and assesses college and university performance, says in a report that the nation's most elite private colleges "fail to live up to their reputations in several crucial areas of academic quality and campus management."

Prestigious universities are largely coasting on reputation and slipping in terms of performance, the council says. It's a scenario that would sink a corporation in the private sector, where investors, customers and board directors wouldn't stand for it.

In the report, Education or Reputation? A Look at America's Top-Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges, the nonprofit examines 29 private colleges, homing in on the quality of education, tuition rates, administrative spending, endowments and campus speech codes (the ACTA bills itself as being a champion on free academic speech.)

Here are is what the organization found:

Skyrocketing endowments, and tuition costs. The average endowment for the 29 schools covered was $1 billion each. But that cash cow didn't stop them from raising tuition and fees, on average, by 6.2% and 17.1% above the rate of inflation rate in recent years. That comes at a time when many U.S. families 'are cutting back expenses," the ACTA reports.

Big paychecks. President Barack Obama earns $400,000 annually for running a country with 317 million people, but 11 private schools tracked in the study have fewer than 2,000 students and pay their presidents base salaries of $400,000 or more.

Basic studies missing. The ACTA says that only two schools offer college-level courses in economics, and 28 of 29 don't offer a college-level course in U.S. history or government.

Big debt in a lousy job market. College graduates at all 29 schools owe up to $26,567 on average, in college loan debt when they walk away from campus.

Misplaced funding priorities. More than half of the schools spend more on administrative costs than on instructional spending.

Add it all up and the ACTA says college students and their parents are getting the short end of the stick at some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the U.S.

"The sense of entitlement coming from the administrations of the top liberal arts colleges in the country is astounding," says Anne D. Neal, president of the organization. "For the price they're charging, institutions should -- at the very least -- provide a solid foundation and the opportunity for intellectual growth that comes from the free and vigorous exchange of ideas. Instead, our report finds that too many of our elite liberal arts schools are living off their reputation and offering little more than empty promises."

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