A Must Read: “The Price You Pay For College” + How Gunston Gets it Right

  • Letter from the Head
A Must Read: “The Price You Pay For College” + How Gunston Gets it Right

by John Lewis, Head of School


Has the COVID pandemic killed the 4-year college experience? In considering this question, I recall Mark Twain’s famous phrase: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” The first universities in the Western world were founded in the 11th and 12th centuries—Bologna (1058), the Sorbonne (1150), and Oxford (1167). Since then, higher education institutions have been central to society’s fabric of learning, and despite the profound innovation and changes being currently wrought by the pandemic and technology, New York Times columnist Ron Lieber writes: 

Our idea—our ideal of college will probably be similarly hard to alter in any kind of fundamental way. There is an extremely strong cultural investment in a specific idea of college, where people don’t just go to get a credential. It’s a stage of life, a set of experiences that can exist only at the particular institution that can provide them.

There are very few books that I would recommend to every single Gunston family, but among them is Mr. Lieber’s most recent work “The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make,” (Harper, 2021). Wisdom abounds in this book—I took notes on nearly every page—and in a college-preparatory community like Gunston, it is essential reading. The book is extraordinarily clear-eyed about several key issues. First, I’ve never seen a better explanation and exploration of the financial investment that college represents. Financing a college education is an increasingly complex and sophisticated transaction. When one considers the structure of higher education pricing, I’m reminded of the classic poker saying, “If you don’t know who the sucker at the table is, it’s you.” 

Mr. Lieber arms modern educational consumers with the necessary knowledge to effectively navigate this process, and the first third of his book outlines higher education pricing dynamics with painstaking care and clarity. Here’s the good news for Gunston students and families: we have entered an era—due to changes in demographics and economics—where the education “consumer” enjoys many advantages, and where a solid grasp of the higher education revenue model can help families more effectively match financial resources with educational goals.

Although Mr. Lieber outlines the dramatic economic benefits of a college education for students, he never loses sight of the “priceless” essence of higher education. Education is valuable for its own sake, and the ultimate value of one’s education can never be fully calculated. The spiritual and psychological benefits of a superb education last a lifetime, and they echo across generations. The pleasure of spotting a subtle flaw in an argument; understanding the structure of the scientific method; realizing how a current event reflects a historical pattern; calculating something accurately; feeling deep resonance with a sophisticated work of art, music, or literature; situating a personal experience in a cultural, social, or anthropological context, studying the structure of other languages; and making lifelong friends—these are the types of transcendent human experiences that a well-rounded residential college education provides, and they defy easy quantification. 

In 35 digestible and systematic chapters, Mr. Lieber sustains a balanced tone—educational consumer vs. educational beneficiary—to guide students and families through the practical, psychological, and financial elements of the higher educational search process. With chapter titles like “Classrooms Where Experienced Instructors Have Time,” “Diversity in All its Forms,” “Amenities (But is the Lazy River a Must?)” and “How to Appeal your Financial Aid Award,”  the book is a masterwork of synthesis. It covers broad and essential topics like federal student loans and undergraduate mental health, to more granular questions around career counseling, graduate school support, and campus housing. He also provides important insights on how to evaluate a college’s effectiveness in serving students across the income, family background (e.g. first-generation college) and racial and ethnic spectrums.

Having graduated from college nearly three decades ago, this book felt familiar and strange—some elements about the college experience have changed little, while other things have changed dramatically. As the Head of a college preparatory school, I confess that I’ve had doubts in recent years about the staying power of residential higher education (and by extension, the need for an intensive college preparatory education like that at Gunston). As it turns out, the pandemic and this book have put these concerns to rest.  

If we’ve learned anything during this pandemic, it is that we—as humans—are built to be “in community” where we are interacting closely and regularly with each other in physical and temporal spaces. This year Gunston has seen a record number of applications. It has never been clearer that our mission of “rigor, nurture, and personalization,” carried out in small classes, five days per week, on a 35-acre physical campus with rich extracurricular opportunities, reflects an optimal, time-tested environment for human learning and thriving. 

Residential university life is an extension of this notion, and during these challenging times Mr. Lieber offers an essential guidebook for helping each student to find their path forward. Again, I encourage students and families to pick up this book, and I look forward to your impressions and feedback. Let me also take this moment to thank Ms. Kellee Webb, our Director of College Guidance, for her remarkable leadership and dedication during this pandemic, and for being such a great partner with our families.


  • College guidance