Placing first in a college ranking rarely inspires college presidents to pen defenses of their institutions. But when that list documents America's most expensive colleges, the instinct makes a little more sense.

At Inside Higher Ed today, Karen Lawrence, the president of Sarah Lawrence College, explains why the small liberal arts college in Bronxville, New York has the honor of bestowing the country's priciest degree. For the 2011-2012 school year, Sarah Lawrence will charge undergraduates $58,716 for tuition, fees, room, and board (that doesn't include financial aid, which almost two-thirds of students receive, according to Forbes). While Lawrence acknowledge that it's difficult to justify the college's educational experience on a "purely economic basis," she cites three reasons why a Sarah Lawrence degree is "worth every penny" (or, more precisely, almost 23.5 million pennies, over four years). Here are her arguments, along with some counterarguments:

Faculty Attention

Lawrence argument: Almost all classes are small seminars in which students meet biweekly with professors on independent projects, each student is assigned a "don" (or full-time faculty adviser), and graduate students don't serve as teaching assistants. Sarah Lawrence "faculty have twice the one-on-one contact time with individual students as faculty at other prestigious institutions," Lawrence states.

Counterargument: One commenter at Inside Higher Ed doesn't understand why faculty-intensive teaching must necessarily translate into high tuition: "Do you pay your faculty exceptionally well to compensate for the hours they put in? Do the faculty have a very low teaching load in terms of numbers of classes taught to compensate for the hours they put into each student?"

Customized Education

Lawrence argument: Sarah Lawrence students design their own curriculum and receive written evaluations in addition to grades after each course. This "handcrafted" education, Lawrence says, is "significantly more cost-intensive, and thus more costly, than what's produced on an assembly line."

Counterargument: "The fact that the school pawns off [designing a curriculum] on the kids should be an argument for lower prices," argues Gawker's Hamilton Nolan.

'Dividends' After Graduation

Lawrence argument: Since Sarah Lawrence offers multidiscplinary "concentrations" rather than majors and doesn't offer vocational courses, Lawrence reasons, students learn how to be flexible learners, think like entrepreneurs, and "create their own jobs and careers, which is precisely what the world demands as traditional jobs and professions disappear or are outsourced." A Sarah Lawrence education, she concludes, "continues to offer dividends after graduation."

Counterargument: PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, whom we wrote about earlier this week, would probably laugh at the notion that a Sarah Lawrence education forges entrepreneurs. He's currently planning on paying 20 teenagers $100,000 each to forgo college and start a company. What's more, Payscale's ranking of top liberal arts colleges by salary potential suggests that Sarah Lawrence's "dividends" after graduation may be rather slim, at least economically speaking. The college finishes 97th in the ranking, with a starting median salary of $38,600 and a mid-career median pay of $72,100. The ranking is based on self-reported salaries from PayScale users whose highest degree is a bachelor's, in an effort to isolate the relationship between undergraduate education and pay (though you could argue that removing all alumni who've gone to graduate school also skews the results). Here is PayScale's top 10. Granted, it's a rather odd list:

 

top liberal arts colleges top liberal arts colleges
Methodology
Annual pay for Bachelors graduates without higher degrees. Typical starting graduates have 2 years of experience; mid-career have 15 years. See full methodology for more.