College students today want what we had

College students today want what we had

Mark Tallman has published extensively on the effects of post-secondary education on student economic success, and therefore the state’s economic success. We know that students who do not go on to post-secondary earn significantly less than their peers.

Nationally, some politicians have advocated for free tuition for all, while at the state level, states like Wyoming and Georgia have implemented free tuition programs for students who meet academic standards. At the local level, Neodesha got national attention when their foundation announced that all students would have the opportunity to receive post-secondary tuition.

Over the course of just a few generations, post-secondary learning has gone from a luxury to a necessity. Neither of my grandfathers matriculated past the eighth grade. That was the norm 100 years ago. It wasn’t until the 1950s in Kansas county high schools became the norm. We Boomers were able to get good jobs with a high school diploma. The economy changed for our kids and our kid’s kids. At the same time, the economics of post-secondary education changed dramatically.

OK, boomers, it is time to do some math. Experience tells me a young man in the mid-1970s could attend the University of Kansas for $250 tuition per semester. That same young fella could get a job serving refreshments to his friends and neighbors for $2.50 an hour. If he worked 100 hours, he had earned his tuition for the semester. If he worked two and a half months in the summer, he had tuition for the year and some pizza money left over. Student loans didn’t even exist back then.

Advance the calendar one generation. That same fella’s family member goes to work serving refreshments down the road in Manhattan. She earns $10 an hour, but her tuition is $5,000 for the semester. It would take her six months to earn enough to pay her tuition. The average student debt for her class is $28,000. Her wages increased by a factor of four, while her tuition increased by a factor of 20. When you hear someone of my generation complain about college students wanting a handout, suggest that perhaps what they want is what we had.
College tuition has increased mainly because state funding has decreased. So, while we all recognize the need for increased education, we do not devote the resources we need to make it happen.

As our Kansas State Board of Education focuses on this issue by making post-secondary attainment a priority, it is time for educators to look at how to support students in this endeavor. Academic and curriculum changes are essential, and educators devote time and attention to preparing students for success. Are there also structural changes that could make this journey more navigable? What if Kansas implemented an incentive program to pay tuition like Wyoming or Georgia?

What if Kansas increased funding to post-secondary education institutions to at least keep up with inflation? What if Kansas reimagined the junior and senior year of high school to allow students to simultaneously complete high school and post-secondary education at the same time. What if the goal becomes for every 18-year-old to have a high school diploma and an associate degree or certificate? What would that mean for the Kansas workforce? For the Kansas economy?