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Wofford president speaks to rising college costs

By Ellen Meder
for Florence Morning News

FLORENCE, S.C. — The Florence Rotary Club hosted the new president of Wofford College at its meeting Monday and got his unique perspective on problems with the ever-rising cost of higher education, as well as his view of issues that have been over-hyped.

Dr. Nayef Samhat took the reins of Wofford, in Spartanburg, last summer and has since become the school’s biggest cheerleader — though he joked with Rotarians that he’s really putting in his time with the school until he can become one of its football coaches like former president Joab Lesesne.

With a political science and international affairs background and degrees from George Washington University, Columbia University and Northwestern University, Samhat advocated strongly at the luncheon for the value of a liberal arts education.

“[A liberal arts education’s] value is often denied or lost on some I think…” he said to the crowd. “Art history degrees or philosophy degrees some believe have little value when it comes to seeking a job and a higher salary, but I would argue that they bring much to who we are as individuals and our society.”

After his remarks he said that the well-rounded nature of a liberal arts education leads to a more fulfilling life for graduates, who have the humanities to compliment more specific work with sciences or technology.

Wofford is a private, non-profit college that focuses on a liberal arts education for its 1,580 students, that is proud to have more than 90 percent of its students living on campus.

Samhat said that while the “sticker price” of higher education has jumped drastically in the past decades, he cautioned the public and families looking to send their students to school to really look at the various types of institutions among the 4,600 in the country.

“The landscape is extraordinarily diverse,” he said. “There are a range of institutions that serve a range of different needs and populations and so any critique or assessment of higher education has to account for this diversity of institutions. I would also note that institutions of higher education are pretty complex… Making assumptions about cost and debt across all of higher education is to simplify again what is a very complex sector.”

He pointed out data indicating that from 2003 to 2013 the sticker price of public four-year schools rose about 37 percent, or $5,000, while the net price paid by students only rose 34 percent, or $3,200. By contrast in the same period, private four-years had a reported fees jump of 23 percent, or $7,800, but the net price increase for students was actually only 3 percent, or $660.

For Wofford in particular, the past decade has shown a 60 percent jump in the comprehensive price, now at $45,795, but during that same period financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants has gone up 90 percent.

He said Wofford’s ability to help students meet the sticker price comes from its endowment and generous donations from alumni and friends of the college, and results in a much lower net payment. He also boasted that in a recent study by The State newspaper that Wofford graduates had the least education debt of any school in South Carolina.

Samhat said that as state budgets for public universities drastically dwindle, his colleagues at state schools will have to begin thinking more like private schools like his, and have done so already by seeking more out-of-state students who pay higher tuition to bring in-state students an automatically discounted price. Public and private schools alike are pursuing donations for scholarships to help deserving students pay for schooling more easily, despite rising sticker prices.

Samhat also expressed concern about Pres. Barack Obama’s recently released idea that colleges should be rated using a system measuring access, affordability and outcomes, saying that if federal funds become tied to such a system that it could actually hamper access and stratify higher education.