Community colleges offer fraction of cost

Published 9:22 am Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Column: Terrence Leas, Riverland Comm. College

Last month, Riverland sent 553 graduates either into the world to enter the workforce or onto another institution to continue their education.

Terrence Leas

The commencement ceremony is the culmination of our students’ dedication, discipline and self-sacrifice, and the Riverland community celebrates their success.

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Commencement is always one of the more rewarding days of the year for our employees as we witness the joy the event brings to our hard-working students and their families. We are also proud of our faculty and staff members who have produced another set of graduates, armed with a high-quality education.

Commencement brought to mind a recent Star Tribune article written by Maureen MacDonald Swan. Swan, from a family who valued education, earned degrees from Vanderbilt, Harvard, Purdue, Washington University, Dartmouth and Notre Dame. She investigated students attending elite schools versus those attending state schools like Riverland and which produces better (more marketable) students.

Swan admits her findings were startling.

“Research shows that for talented students, going to an elite school has no discernible impact on earnings — either right out of school and over the span of graduates’ careers.

“With the exception of kids from low-income households, there is no economic boost from attending elite schools. Financial benefit comes from having a college degree with good grades — not from the brand name on the diploma. (Note to parents and students: Data show that an elite-name graduate school can make a difference.)”

There is also no data supporting that expensive colleges provide a better student experience. Curiously, Swan discovered research showing that undergraduates at the most elite campuses are less satisfied and view their schools as overrated.

We have all heard that students attending big-name universities are more marketable and that top employers are looking for students with degrees from elite schools. A 2010 Wall Street Journal survey completely proved that assertion false.

Cost is an important reason to explore state colleges like Riverland, because high-priced colleges are much more expensive than at first glance. According to Swan, the difference “to go elite is at least $200,000. Regardless of who pays, it would cost the equivalent of $2,000 a month for nearly a decade and result in a $2 million difference at retirement.”

To those of us who work at Riverland, the decision seems obvious. We offer a quality education and take pride in our personalized education. Yes, elite private colleges sometimes have nationally celebrated faculty, but as Swan points out, those instructors are often not actually in the classrooms. “They are off consulting.”

In the end, the graduates at a Riverland commencement look similar to those at a Harvard ceremony. They wear similar gowns, tassels and display the same unmistakable pride in what that ceremony represents. The difference, according to Swan, is the elite education comes at an enormous cost.

Our faculty and staff members’ commitment to excellence in teaching and learning ensures that Riverland graduates are equally prepared for the next step in their educational journey at a fraction of the cost.


Terrence Leas is the president of Riverland Community College.