Why the Price of Higher Education Needs to Change


A guest commentary by President Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, published in The Kansas Star on Sept. 11, 2022.

When President Biden announced the Student Loan Forgiveness Plan last week, pundits were quick to cite the rising cost of tuition as the reason for students’ large debt burden. They’re not wrong.

According to studies by the Education Data Initiative, tuition and fees at four-year, public institutions have risen 179.2% since 2002 and 124.2% at their four-year, private counterparts. In the meantime, student loan debt in the United States has climbed to $1.7 trillion.

I have devoted my life to collegiate education, because there is no more transformational vehicle for ending poverty and increasing generational wealth than earning a college degree. But we in higher education are denying our sacred mission when we set prices that are out of reach for low- and middle-income families.

We also are at risk of being hypocrites. Every institution of higher learning with a desire to serve the public good espouses a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Yet increases in tuition exacerbate the divide between the haves and have nots. The Federal Reserve’s most recent (2019) Survey of Consumer Finances found that White families have eight times the wealth than Black families and five times that of Hispanic families. Raising tuition makes it harder for students of color to attend college and creates a greater student debt burden for those who do.

So what is higher education’s responsibility—and opportunity—in this moment? I offer three words as an answer: Humility, strategy, and authenticity.

In 2018, William Jewell College established a strategic plan with the goal of becoming indispensable to Kansas City. The goal is reflective of institutional humility—or, our recognition that if we are not in service to our Region, then we should not exist. We executed on this strategy by aligning with KC Rising’s Vision for Regional Prosperity, and determined to take authentic and meaningful steps to make a Jewell education available to all. In 2020, we lowered tuition by 40%. Overnight, this made out of pocket costs for lower income students commensurate with that of our public peers.

The results have been striking. This fall we welcomed our largest incoming class since 2014, and it is 38% diverse. Many of our highest need students have their entire cost of attendance met through Jewell grants and scholarships, which significantly reduces these students’ federal loan debt. We have increased enrollment of KC Scholars by 40% this year, offering a KC Scholars Promise matching grant. And we are meeting working families where they are by providing financial counseling to parents and students after hours and on weekends.

Institutions of higher learning, including William Jewell, are obligated to do all we can to ensure that our students live productive, meaningful lives free from burdensome debt and financial pressure. By innovating around price, being responsive to our market, and staying true to our ideals, we can make the transformational experience of earning a college degree affordable for all.