A recent book by Robert Archibald and David Feldman called Why Does College Cost So Much? asks the question about higher education that’s on everyone’s mind these days: parents, students, administrators, op-ed columnists. There’s been plenty of debate about access, diversity, completion rates, and other important issues, but cost heads the list. Not long ago President Obama convened a roundtable of college and university presidents to discuss affordability, among other topics, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called upon schools to address the issue with “a sense of urgency.”

The debate about higher education’s affordability is often joined with another about its proper aims. If college is going to cost a great deal, shouldn’t it be a great deal? And doesn’t that mean pointing students toward high-paying professions where all their hard work and sacrifice will be rewarded? Shouldn’t we abandon the liberal arts as the residue of an earlier age when only the scions (and sons) of the wealthy studied philosophy or English literature?

The first thing that ought to be said here is that the concerns are real. Whether you count just tuition and fees or total expenses (including room and board), the price of attending a four-year school has nearly tripled during the last three decades. Private, non-profit colleges rose by about 4.5% last year, public universities slightly more. And all these numbers outpaced inflation, as they’ve done since the 1980s.

A fact that doesn’t often accompany these numbers is that over the same time period, as Archibald and Feldman point out, the cost of many other kinds of services, including entertainment and health care, have also risen much faster than inflation. I’ll come back in a moment to differences between higher education and other elements of the economy, but it’s worth pointing out that a number of assumptions threading through this national discussion about college cost are misguided or simply wrong. We sometimes seem to be arguing about a situation that doesn’t exist, or else employing tests and terms that don’t really apply.

One of these assumptions is that price is the same thing as cost—that is, that a college’s “sticker price” is what a typical student pays to attend. In fact, a broad spectrum of grants and financial aid yields a much lower average cost than any figure that’s likely to turn up in the news. What admissions officials call freshman discount rates (the proportion of tuition revenue returned directly to students) averaged 43% last year nationally, and many schools’ rates approached 50% or even 60%.

Here’s another assumption that could use more scrutiny: Higher education, because it offers a “product” (degree) to “consumers” (students or their parents) and incurs costs for labor, facilities and materials, must be subject to the same kind of analysis as any other producer of goods. In other words there has to be, as with groceries or auto parts, a single most efficient way to go about things—all you need to know is the cost of inputs, the most efficient technologies, and you arrive at the lowest cost per unit. But comparing University X to Company Y in this way presents a substantial apples & oranges problem. Because neither the value of a college’s most important product nor the cost of its most important constituent part (a student, in both cases) is nearly as clean and tidy as those on a company spreadsheet.

Let’s look at some of those costs. Polemics about the state of American universities today—Andrew Hacker’s and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education? (2010) can perhaps stand as representative—tend to scorn what they perceive as an “extravagant amenities race,” pointing to recreation centers with climbing walls, career centers, counseling programs, and the like as pricey icing on what they believe should be an austere academic cake. Others assume faculty salaries must be prohibitive. The fact is that students, especially at upper-tier universities, now rightly expect excellent food, housing and support services, and school and student alike are better for it. As to salaries, faculty are not better paid on the whole than their counterparts in commerce and industry, relatively few of whom have invested similarly (in time, money and lost wages) in their own educations. Many, especially the part-time, adjunct or lecture-track faculty who now shoulder much of the teaching load, are paid radically less. Cherry-picking one or two highly-paid chaired professors and extrapolating to the professoriate at large is misinformed at best, dishonest at worst.

For those who think higher education should be radically reorganized—and as Jeff Selingo writes in “The Financial Cliff for Higher Education,” most of this debate is carried by “those who want to preserve what we have at all costs, and those who want to throw the current model out and start all over”— another popular tack is to invoke the magic word technology. Surely technical wizardry should bring the price of education down. But while there have been exciting advances in classroom IT over the last two decades, we’re nearing the limit of the efficiencies such technology can offer. And in any case smart classrooms can’t replace small ones, in my view, nor distance learning replace residential campuses, without changing dramatically what we promise our students. Education is, in John Dewey’s phrase, “a mode of social life.” Diminishing students’ opportunity to interact (with faculty and with each other) in these formative years, substituting something increasingly solitary and mediated, ignores the dynamics of the developmental process. Both experiences might be described as education, but no careful observer would call them both apples.

Equally unhelpful in addressing higher education’s rising costs is the assertion that because such costs outpace inflation, students must be paying more for the same thing. Even setting aside climbing walls and counselors, this is plainly not so. Many departments now represented on every college campus, many entire disciplines, didn’t even exist thirty years ago. We could of course abolish economics, biology or English because human inquiry has expanded to include film studies, women’s studies and computer science. But this would not be an attractive option for many parents seeking a modern, comprehensive education for their children.

Which brings me back to the question of value. For such an education is precisely what a rigorous training in the liberal arts can provide. It would be a terrible mistake, I believe, to homogenize higher education in this country and direct it toward a more targeted, pre-professional model, as some critics suggest we do. Having worked in Asia, Canada and Europe, I know that such academic plans, requiring early commitment to a narrow menu of courses, yield more immediate field-specific knowledge but offer much less chance for 17-year-olds to discover what it is they are truly good at and want to do.

In making a case for the liberal arts I do not want to seem to be advocating a kind of curricular luxury tax, under which some students choose liberal arts while their more ambitious (or less financially secure) classmates opt for pre-professional tracks and everybody pays more. It’s true that a college degree offers a buffer against unemployment. (Four out of every five jobs lost during this recession were held by workers with only a high school diploma.) It also increases lifetime earnings—by over $2 million in 2009 dollars, according to one study. But the reflexive assumption that these numbers are skewed higher by technical or pre-professional degrees just doesn’t hold up.

As Carol Schneider of the Association of American Colleges and Universities says, we’ve done a “fabulously successful job” of allowing common wisdom to perceive liberal education as (a) impractical and (b) elitist, intended for those who can afford to acquire job skills in graduate school. But in this instance common wisdom is not particularly wise. A liberal arts education is in fact the best possible preparation for all the niches our students will want to carve out of the world—as ministers, architects, poets, accountants, teachers, attorneys, musicians. The liberal arts draw us out of our narrow individual experience into the wide world of ideas and historical precedent, offer ethical standards, teach us to think critically and creatively.

I think these are qualities we want in our teachers and clergy, our advocates and surgeons and business partners. But this is not wishful thinking on the part of a university president. Another fact little mentioned in these debates is that medical, law, and business schools, as well as graduate schools, non-profits and service organizations, want students with broad backgrounds, with the ability to speak, write and reason with subtlety and force. Do well in a liberal arts program and you’ve opened the gates to any profession or business.

A few examples: A recent poll asked hundreds of attorneys at the nation’s largest law firms the question “What field of study, or major, would you recommend for an undergraduate student who is planning to attend law school?” The number one answer, by a considerable margin, was liberal arts. “A diverse educational background is a critical asset for today’s professionals, particularly attorneys,” said the poll’s director, pointing out that lawyers must be able to communicate intelligently with executives and professionals in a variety of fields.

The same is true for medicine. A recent conference of medical school admissions deans concluded that “medicine itself is a liberal art” and that the best preparation is “as broad an education as possible beyond the minimum science courses required.” This is borne out by the fact that liberal arts graduates are accepted into medical school at a higher percentage than the overall applicant pool, and over-represented among students gaining honors. “Medical schools really do want liberally educated, well-rounded, empathetic people,” said one dean. “They’re looking for students with intellectual passion and curiosity. Being a doctor is more than passing objective tests.”

And business? What role can the liberal arts play in a world of balance sheets and risk assessment? David Kearns, former CEO of Xerox, puts it this way: “Today the race goes not just to the swift, but to the inventive, the resourceful, the curious. And that is what is what a liberal education is all about.” Roger Smith, former CEO of General Motors, calls the liberal arts “the most relevant learning model” for business, teaching “the kind of sideways thinking and cross-classifying habit of mind that comes from learning, among other things, the many different ways of looking at literary works, social systems, chemical processes, or languages.”

A 2010 survey by the Association of American Colleges & Universities backs them both up. It found that 89% of employers nationwide want colleges to place more emphasis on written and oral communication, 81% on critical thinking and analytic reasoning, and 75% on ethical decision making.

Whatever courses and lives, our students choose, it is clearly our responsibility as faculty, staff and administrators to make the most efficient use of the tuition paid by those students and their families, and of contributions to our scholarship and building funds. But in order to do so, we need a national discussion of college cost and value that doesn’t jump at faulty premises or easy answers. We need a debate worthy of the minds involved, and those at stake.