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The rising cost of higher education

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By Special to The Sun


Editor’s Note: Bob Lochte is a professor and chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Murray State University.
His opinions are his own and do not represent the official view of the Kentucky Press Association, Murray State University or any government agency in the Commonwealth.

I’m a firm believer in the progress of education reform in Kentucky. I came to Murray State University in 1988 when KERA was relatively new. Since 2006, I have been the instructor of Transitions, an orientation class for first-semester freshmen. So I’ve been able to observe long-term and short-term trends. Both are positive.
Our best students are no better than they were 23 or five years ago, but we have more of them now. While too many still enter the university unprepared, unmotivated, and unsure of why they are here, the overall quality of the rest has improved substantially. From my perspective, KERA and its subsequent revisions work. We need to stick with the effort. It’s the best thing the Governor, the legislature, and the public school systems across the Commonwealth can do to enhance life for us all.
Recently, though, I noticed a disturbing trend. This fall three new freshmen, all of them promising Murray State students, told me they cannot enroll next semester. Their reasons were identical – they could not afford to come back. Instead, they planned to stay home and attend a community college or other university close to home. About half of the high school students who visit with their parents are making similar decisions. We all know the economy has been tough for Kentucky citizens, but this seems to me to be a larger issue.
Simply put, we are pricing a university education out of the reach of many Kentucky high school graduates at precisely the time more of them are well-prepared to earn Bachelor’s and higher degrees. If this is happening at a relatively low-cost university such as Murray State, the problem looms larger elsewhere. We must do something about this or run the risk of frustrating the aims of more than two decades of education reform.
Some programs are in place to address the problem. Advanced placement and dual-credit classes in high schools are still the best way to save on university tuition. The universities and community colleges are working together on the shared reality that more students will attend both. What’s needed now is for students and their parents to take ownership of a Bachelor’s degree plan and consult with both schools before enrolling.
Distance learning is an attractive but ultimately less desirable alternative to a residential university experience for most students. If you stay home and take classes online, you can earn a degree and not pay for a dorm room, meal plan, activities fees, and many other non-tuition costs. But this comes at the expense of making lifelong contacts and developing a professional portfolio. For example, our students have work-study opportunities at The Murray State News and other campus media that lead to good quality internships and ultimately to impressive résumés. It’s impossible to do all that when you’re not on campus.
A university education is an expensive investment, one that gets more precious each year. How to moderate this growth is the issue. Cost controls, developing new scholarships, more effective public investment, seeking additional grants and external funding, and eliminating non-productive programs are but a few of the efforts Murray State University makes to address the challenge. But keeping university education affordable for Kentucky students, while still retaining the quality and value of the degrees, is a complex dilemma with many stakeholders. I don’t profess to have an answer. I’m just saying we all need to find one soon.