Discussion on college costs should also focus on value



By Denise Ho

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On a recent Tuesday in October, the students of Dr. Jenny Minier’s Econ 402 joined the national conversation about the cost of undergraduate education.

They had been assigned several New York Times articles about college tuition and unemployment, and Dr. Minier opened the class discussion by telling the students that they were at the front and center of the issue of college costs.

Overall, student comments paralleled the problems raised in the reading assignments.

They were worried about the rising cost of college, about the burden for out-of-state students and the pressures of graduating with student debt.

Referring to UK in particular, students expressed concern that they weren’t sure how money is being spent in the institution. Jordan Frank commented that Americans and colleges alike “take on this mindset of spending and figuring out how it is to be paid for later.”

More than one student argued that education is a public good;

Lindsay Hill remarked, “One thing I thought was interesting is that the state keeps lowering funding for higher education. This just doesn’t make sense to me. The state should actually be putting more money into education.”

As President Eli Capilouto meets with faculty and students Monday, student feedback should be kept in mind.

But the students of Econ 402 are really just a place to start such a discussion. In some ways, Econ 402 is not representative of the average UK undergraduate; those juniors and seniors are on track to graduate (and probably overrepresented in scholarships). The economics students are as a group practical about career choices, and are probably more likely than the average student to find gainful employment after graduation.

We need to discuss the cost — and the value — of education for the students of Econ 402, but we also need to think about it for the students who have not gotten that far.

Though the flags on campus advertise that UK has the highest graduation rate of any Kentucky public institution, by the university’s own numbers this past April the six-year degree completion rate is just under 60 percent.

We should certainly be worried about the Econ 402 students, but we should also worry about the 40 percent who pay their tuition without getting a degree in six years. Why are they being admitted without being given the tools to be successful?

For the most part, the students in Econ 402 agreed that UK is still a good deal. One student stressed that “The fact of the matter is that UK can still raise tuition because it is still cheaper than places like IU or OSU. In the SEC it is very comparable, if not cheaper.”

A senior economic student compared his tuition to his brother’s private college costs in New Orleans; Jordan Frank pointed out the other end of the college tuition spectrum in “for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix.”

Although I think these students have a valid point that UK is a better value, it is also important to consider the cost of college over time, and how the cost (as a percentage of, say, family income) is changing in such a short period.

Until UK students see their situation as not unlike what other students face at public institutions across the nation, there will be little motivation for collective action.

At the end of the class period, I asked how the students might evaluate the worth of their educations — after all, cost is not the same as value.

The response to this was varied: one argued that it depends on one’s choice of major. Another suggested that the value of being at UK is not quantifiable because of the importance of networking. Yet another commented that general education requirements prevented her from focusing on her major, prompting her to ask whether this is why graduate school seems to be a prerequisite for a good job.

Perhaps the most critical comments came from two math majors who had done research at other universities. One expressed surprise that North Carolina State had significantly more resources than UK, “It is insane the difference between those schools. I wonder what the difference is.”

The issues raised by Econ 402 suggest that in our conversation about the cost of college, we should also be talking about — and working towards — improving its value.