The Value Proposition of College Tuition

Kentucky higher education makes the case to today’s savvy students that success is their ROI

By Lorie Hailey

Have white board, will teach! Associate Professor of Mathematics Kimberley Jenkins teaches her class outside on the front steps of historic Old Morrison on the Transylvania University campus.For most prospective Kentucky college students today, affordability remains a top concern, but they are more willing to pay for postsecondary education if they know they will receive a high return on that investment. Namely, a job in their career field soon after they toss their mortar boards into the sky on graduation day.

Annual in-state Kentucky tuitions averaged $13,823 for 2017-18, according to CollegeCalc.org, and ranged from $3,888 at all the Kentucky Community and Technical College System institutions around the commonwealth to $40,500 at Centre College in Danville. Kentucky ranked 25th in expense nationally.

The commonwealth’s 66 colleges and universities are competing for students now more than ever, and marketing to prospective students has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. Most schools first and foremost promote their academic profile, but that alone is no longer enough to entice tuition payers. Students want to know their time at an institution will not only be educational and fun but that the school also will prepare them for life after college.

With successive generations hearing that a college degree is the route to success, tuitions have increased at rates significantly higher than the cost of living for decades; room and board expenses have increased as well. Students take on debt, sometimes into six figures, to pay for the opportunity to earn degrees. Student loan debt in the United States now amounts to $1.5 trillion.

The average student loan debt of students from Kentucky’s public and private universities increased by nearly 100 percent from 2004 to 2017 and now averages $28,447, according to The Institute for College Access and Success.


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The dollars changing hands means that in addition to showing they are the right academic, social and financial fit for students, colleges and universities have to prove their value proposition. They place more emphasis on co-op programs, study abroad programs, research opportunities and internships.

Today’s students have done their research – and there’s more information available at their fingertips than ever before.

“Incoming students are no longer focused on experiences and amenities. They are digital natives looking for worthwhile outcomes and viable careers,” said Jerry Jackson, vice president for enrollment and communications at University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg.

“Information is more transparent and readily available for prospective students than ever before,” said Holly Sheilley, vice president for enrollment and student life at Transylvania University in Lexington. “This access empowers students to handpick institutions that are most likely to help them develop marketable skills and deliver post-graduation success.”

So, how do Kentucky colleges and universities prove they’re worth it? We asked some of them how they describe their value proposition to prospective students and how they are marketing themselves. Here’s what they said.

Are today’s students more “transactional” in their choice of postsecondary education institutions, prioritizing acquisition of marketable skills in exchange for their tuition dollars?

Bluegrass Community and Technical College (Koffi C. Akakpo, president): Many of our students are leaning toward education that has a specific career attached to it, as evidenced by the popularity of our technical programs such as nursing, welding and advanced manufacturing. The Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship (to help Kentuckians who have not earned an associate’s degree afford an industry-recognized certificate or diploma) is also a great incentive to enter one of these fields.

Campbellsville University (Shane Garrison, vice president for enrollment services): There has been a significant change in the marketplace in regard to “ROI” (return on investment). The prospective students and their families want assurance that an earned degree in a given field will result in immediate employment and progressive career advancement. While the cost of attendance still ranks very high in their decision-making criteria, eventual job placement and career-earning potential is quickly moving into the second or third rank.

Eastern Kentucky University (Stephanie Whaley, director of admissions): Affordability is the No. 1 concern students and families have when they start the college search process, so they are definitely concerned about value when making a higher education choice. At regional universities like EKU, there are some affordability options that sometimes aren’t found at other universities. It is also beneficial to know that more than 70 percent of EKU graduates are employed in Kentucky within a year of graduation. Students are keenly interested in how we can help them attend college, get a job upon graduation, and take the next step in their lives.

Morehead State University (Holly Pollock, director of undergraduate admission): Largely, yes, today’s students are transactional in their approach to choosing a college or university. They approach the decision like a consumer – researching all their options and wanting the best value for their money.

Murray State University (Bob Jackson, president): One of our most critical responsibilities is to demonstrate proof of successful career outcomes involving our graduates and sharing these with the students of tomorrow as they consider their future. Murray State can support them in achieving both their professional and personal goals. Institutionally, we understand the importance of the transformative “teaching and learning” component that higher education can provide and do a tremendous job of supporting, empowering and enriching our students with necessary resources and skills. Higher education is an investment in time and money. Individuals have many, many choices on how they forge their respective paths. Our continued commitment is to be the best choice, the smart choice and the choice that will propel our students to lifetime success. 

Northern Kentucky University (Kim Scranage, vice president of enrollment and degree management): Today’s students are certainly researching more about universities and the value provided. Depending on the type of student entering the institution, it varies on their wants and desires from the university. Post-traditional students are more “transactional” in their choice because they have limited time and schedules and are more concerned about how their decisions ultimately impact their lives and careers. Some students may only enroll in a class or two (or seek a microcredential) because that course provides a skill set needed for a promotion in their career path. While traditional students look for return on their investment, they typically seek out opportunities that are less “transactional” and more experiential.

Spalding University (Chris Hart, dean of enrollment management): Today’s students have the benefit of access to a lot of information immediately throughout the college search process. We’re working with digital natives and sophisticated consumers who are adept at uncovering answers to questions like, “What’s life really like on that campus?” For some, college is a means to an end: This degree will prepare me for future employment in a particular field or industry. Postsecondary education can certainly be helpful in that regard. However, I would say our most successful students are those who have faced challenges along the way and learned from those experiences.

Transylvania University (Holly Sheilley, vice president for enrollment and student life): Absolutely. In today’s digital environment, information is more transparent and readily available for prospective students than ever before. This access empowers students to handpick institutions that are most likely to help them develop marketable skills and deliver post-graduation success. For example, at Transylvania, we have an abundance of interest in pre-health and pre-law, primarily because of our 100-percent acceptance rate to law school and more than 90-percent acceptance rate for recommended students to health professions schools. One of the top priorities of students and families is knowing they will have a long-term return on their investment.

University of Kentucky (Christine Harper, UK associate provost for enrollment management): Students want to understand how a University of Kentucky degree translates into opportunities to make meaningful contributions to society and to advance their careers. And while UK prepares students to make a living, it also is important for them to make a life – what President Eli Capilouto calls lives of leadership, meaning, and purpose.

The depth and breadth of programs at UK provides opportunities for students with varied interests, allowing them to develop a portfolio of involvement that gives them a sense of fulfillment and sets them apart from other graduates. High-impact experiences like education abroad, undergraduate research, and other innovative and creative experiences at UK distinguish the type of transformational education that UK delivers. According to Payscale.com, UK graduates, both in-state and out-of-state, receive the best return on their investment. This ROI is strong thanks to the combination of academic and career opportunities, as well as UK’s commitment to putting students first.

University of Louisville (Jenny Sawyer, executive director of admissions): Among students, it varies based on how clear they are on their educational and career goals. Parents helping a second or third child navigate a college search are much more likely to have more questions about job placement rates, average starting salaries, professional school acceptance rates and very specific questions about co-ops and internships.

University of the Cumberlands (Jerry Jackson, vice president for enrollment and communications): Yes. Absolutely. Incoming students are no longer focused on experiences and amenities. They are digital natives looking for worthwhile outcomes and viable careers.

Western Kentucky University (Timothy Caboni, president): Students and parents more and more view postsecondary education as an investment in time and money with the payoff coming in higher earnings over their lifetime, as well as a higher satisfaction with their lives. While they are sensitive to the perceived rising cost, the actual average net cost (tuition, room, board, books minus scholarships and financial aid) is remaining steady or declining at WKU, increasing the value of the WKU educational experience. Evidence shows that college graduates have lower unemployment rates and increased lifetime earnings than those with a high school diploma.

What institutional characteristics do prospective students ask about or seem to value highly?

BCTC: Students value the support and personalized attention they get from staff and faculty at BCTC. They name that as a key component in their persistence and success. They like the “community” element: They can get a great education close to home and benefit from the relationships we have with local employers. Our tuition value, approximately half the cost of a four-year institution for the same education the first two years, often allows students to enter the workforce debt-free. They also value the quality of our programs, facilities and instruction. Finally, they like the size of our campuses and classes: smaller is appealing.

Campbellsville: Prospective students and families have very different institutional values. Students are concerned with athletics, campus life, academic programs and social engagement. Family members focus on the overall cost, housing options and campus safety concerns.

EKU: In addition to the value, students often are highly interested in the program options. We have unique majors offered at only a small percentage of U.S. colleges, including aviation; fire, arson and explosion investigation; forensic science; wildlife management; American Sign Language interpretation; and a popular computer science track focusing on video game design. Many of our justice and safety, and health sciences programs are nationally recognized and those distinctions matter to students. Our university becomes a destination of choice when students know this is the only place they can find a program of this kind or quality.

Morehead: Academic programs and reputation: Prospective students want to know they will receive a high-quality education with job opportunities upon graduation. Morehead delivers strong and affordable education for friendly, ambitious students who thrive in a student-focused environment defined by small class sizes and faculty committed to teaching and student success. We offer 167 undergraduate and 72 graduate degree programs.

Location, campus environment and aesthetics: MSU prides itself on what our Eagles learn, where they live and where they eat and socialize. We have been transforming the look of the campus for years. MSU completed a $49.5 million project to renovate and expand the Adron Doran University Center. Our newest residence hall, Andrews Hall, provides space for 550 residents with suite-style rooms and student study/meeting areas.

Affordability and net costs: The MSU experience is invaluable, but it is also a point of pride to make this affordable. More than 90 percent of our undergraduate students receive some type of financial aid.

Murray: A high-impact, high-value educational experience with the best return on investment possible. A rigorous and relevant academic curriculum that is challenging, fulfilling, and extends beyond the classroom through hands-on learning opportunities. Providing both the depth and breadth of academic programs delivered in a way to meet the expectations of today’s students. All prospective students, particularly first-generation, want to know what type of support they will find at Murray State to help achieve success in navigating this new chapter of their life.

NKU: That depends on the type of student. We see traditional undergraduate students valuing overall reputation, quality of faculty, and quality of the social life and experience on campus. Traditional undergraduate students are placing significant value on sense of belonging and a culture of service. Students (and parents/guardians) are measuring a university’s commitment to student success. Alternatively, post-traditional students value availability of online learning opportunities, flexible schedules and how their degree will impact their career (i.e., access to various programs and delivery options).

Spalding: We get questions about internships and job placement. Our urban location is a benefit as it relates to future employment being available so close to campus. Students appreciate being able to apply what they’ve learned to an organizational setting, whether out on clinical or field-work experiences or student teaching. The classroom environment brings together students who have different skills, abilities, talents and passions. The diversity represented in these learning communities mirrors what’s found in the workplace. Students want the opportunity to contribute, be heard and feel a sense of belonging. This team approach is valuable in being able to address complex problems from a variety of different perspectives.

Transylvania: Ultimately, the goal for most students’ college search is finding a school that will give them the knowledge they need to walk away and be successful in their field. We tailor our liberal arts education to do that. Students often ask about our student-to-faculty ratio, which is designed to promote a comfortable, personalized environment in which to learn. The faculty-student relationship sets us apart; hiring only well-qualified faculty with terminal degrees in their field, instead of graduate or teaching assistants, increases the quality of teaching and learning. Resources are also paramount to students who understand the value of making connections outside campus. Internships and successful mentors outside the classroom make students more marketable in the workforce. They want to love what they do and have a career, not just a job. That’s why preparing students for a fulfilling career is our mission.

UK: Many students are interested in exploring how they can make a difference in their communities, be activists for social change, and engage in a campus committed to serving Kentucky and beyond. We prepare students to make their mark at UK, in Lexington and their hometowns. With more than 500 student organizations and clubs, there is something for everyone.

More students express interest in working with world-class researchers at UK who are answering the most complex questions of our day. Undergraduates are working in labs, communities and alongside faculty to address the opioid crisis, redesign neighborhoods devastated by natural disasters, and create new forms of artistic expression, along with other ways to contribute to the world.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, employers are seeking graduates who have cross-cultural competence, real-world application and a transferable skills toolkit they can adapt and grow as the economy changes – the world’s leading jobs a decade from now may not have even been contemplated today. Skills they develop at UK must include the ability to think critically, collaborate in teams and communicate effectively. With 460 programs, including 45 exchange programs in 52 countries ranging from one week to a full year, students prepare themselves for a global marketplace.

UofL: Students want to know about job preparedness. They also want to know how they can afford your campus. They value having an opportunity for mentorships with faculty or professionals in the community. Students are looking for a sense of community and a place where they can impact change.

University of the Cumberlands: There is a term floating around colleges today: individualize. How do we individualize students’ college experiences, their career outlooks? Students need critical thinking skills and a well-rounded experience, but mostly they want their programs to fit together into a formula more likely to get the outcome they want, which is a job. Students value flexibility in delivery of their programs. Colleges have to be nimble to be successful.

WKU: Students are looking for a quality educational experience that extends beyond up-to-date classrooms and labs. They want a college experience that gives them a good foundation for the real world in adaptable skills such as critical thinking and analysis and hands-on opportunities to practice those skills. They are looking for an institution that cares about them, supports their needs and is as dedicated to their success as they are through nurturing and mentoring. They are looking for a place where they can belong and join a lifelong family.

What is your “value proposition” to today’s students? What do you tell prospective students is the reason they should choose your institution over others?

BCTC: Bluegrass Community & Technical College is an institution that puts students first. At BCTC, our cost, personal attention, connection to the community and quality programming sets students up for the better life that quality education provides. Our mission is student success.

Campbellsville: Prospective students and families have very different institutional values. Students are concerned with athletics, campus life, academic programs and social engagement. Family members focus on the overall cost, housing options and campus safety concerns.   

EKU: I tell families EKU keeps our opportunities large and our classes small. Our college experience delivers the best of both worlds. EKU’s student-teacher ratio is 16:1, and the average class size is 25. Students are engaged with faculty from that first freshman English or math class all the way through graduation. They get personal attention right away, and that is a big advantage for any academic program. Caring faculty and staff who focus on teaching and supporting students also give them the confidence and needed skills for a wide variety of opportunities. Every freshman attending our Big E Welcome Week walks through the Turner Gate on campus, where it is written in stone they come here to seek “wisdom and knowledge” and they will leave with “passion and purpose.” EKU, the School of Opportunity, seeks to provide that to every single student.

Morehead: High-quality academic programs with personalized student success programs support college and career success. At Morehead State, students’ path to success begins as soon as they enroll and continues throughout their life. We have served generations of students to pursue a quality education, elevate their lives and careers. This is our clear and valued purpose and we’ve intensified our efforts through:

• Academic programs with strong outcomes: pre-med, pre-vet, space science, imaging science, applied engineering, business, education, nursing, music, art/graphic design, undergraduate research, and STEM-X.

• Personalized success programs that enable all students to achieve their goals with accessible, supportive, challenging faculty and staff dedicated to that success.

• A campus where students feel safe and at home is a place they are comfortable challenging themselves to reach their full potential.

Murray: Murray State provides the total college experience through high-quality academics, vibrant campus life experience and a perfectly-sized university with all the offerings of larger institutions but with small class sizes and supportive, nurturing faculty and staff. For nearly 100 years, Murray State has been a special place for people from throughout our region, commonwealth, country and world. Students and their families routinely share that once they set foot on our campus, speak with current students, faculty and staff, and take in the Murray State experience, they feel like their future is here.

NKU: Students tell us NKU offers all the luxuries of a large university and the community and safety of a small one. Students have diverse possibilities available in their first year to provide a foundation of learning for their remaining years, including research, co-ops, internships and study-abroad opportunities. Our great suburban location is just minutes away from the vibrant Cincinnati metropolitan downtown and offers students the quality and security of an engaged community and the recreational and employment benefits of a big city.

Spalding: The first line of our mission statement states, “Spalding University is a diverse community of learners, dedicated to meeting the needs of the times in the tradition of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth,” and is what drives us to act, to adapt. Students are exposed to a culture that values diversity, service, peace and justice. At a smaller campus like ours, that culture is impressed upon students through a deep level of engagement with faculty and staff and personal attention to help them succeed. Students love our unique class schedule of six-week blocks instead of traditional semesters. They can take one or two classes at a time every six weeks, still be a full-time student and graduate in four years or less.

Spalding’s downtown Louisville location is a distinguishing trait, allowing our students to be at the doorstep of commerce and culture in Kentucky’s biggest city. And Spalding’s affordability stands out: About 99 percent of first-time, full-time students receive scholarships or financial aid, and when it comes to final out-of-pocket costs, our students receive a private education at a public-school price. We are Louisville’s only NCAA Division III institution, providing dozens of new students each year the chance to continue playing the sports they love in college.

Transylvania: When you leave Transy, you are going to be world-ready. Whether it’s going to graduate school or launching into the marketplace, you’ll be able to compete at the highest level. The success of our alumni and 95% placement rate six months after graduation validates the quality of learning at Transy.

And students are going to graduate in four years. Our students are in the workforce earlier than their peers. Many families don’t realize the national four-year graduation rate is 33%; a majority of students stay for year five and six. Transy has instituted a four-year graduation guarantee. Plus, our small default rate – 2.9% compared with 11.5% nationally for public schools – shows that the market values Transy grads and will pay for the quality they bring to the table.

Being marketable isn’t just about what you know, it’s also about who you know, and Transy is excellent in connecting current students to influential mentors who help them after graduation. We offer mentors, from alumni to community leaders, as soon as you walk in the door. The hands-on, personal learning experiences students will have – through internships, study abroad, research, and faculty relationships – are unparalleled. Our alumni network is expansive and is open to students for the taking. This, coupled with our location in Lexington, gives our students a significant advantage.

UK: Our students have the ability to do anything. Our job is to give them the support and community they need to reach their potential in the broader world beyond our campus. We put students at the center of everything that we do. We strive to be a community in which students feel safe and know that they belong. UK was created to do more for our students, our communities, Kentucky and beyond.

Dedicated faculty and staff guide and mentor students to see all that they can do and be. UK rallies around students and inspires them to push even harder and pull for each other. Rooted in traditions of kindness, hospitality, perseverance and success, it values hard work. UK is dedicated to envisioning a better future that we’ll build together.

UofL: UofL is located in a vibrant city with countless connections; our location provides more opportunities for internships, co-ops and part-time jobs. Community leaders are strongly connected to UofL, and the partnerships are many. As a research institution, our students can easily engage with faculty in any discipline and be on the cutting edge of groundbreaking discoveries. Our size is just right so students coming from big cities or rural towns can feel at home, jump in and have an impact. Most importantly, our core value diversity prepares students for life after college. UofL students see diversity in all aspects of their college experience.   

University of the Cumberlands: The value proposition goes back to being outcome-driven toward a career. We no longer compete just with other universities; we’re competing with the entrepreneurial mindset and blue-collar work options. The question isn’t necessarily “Why come to Cumberlands?” it’s “Why come to college?” Our argument is that a college degree still acts as validation to future employers that you have the job skills and people skills to be successful in the workforce.

As for the values we present, No. 1 is transparency. Students are savvy customers who value authenticity. The second is having a high return on investment for students. We offer every major academic program, can be flexible in the way we deliver those programs, and do it at a price point nobody can compete with. Price and value do not always go hand-in-hand. Our price point is low, but our quality of education and career-training is high.

WKU: There are many advantages to the WKU experience. First is the experience itself: A dedicated, caring faculty and staff get to know you personally and are there to assist you on your journey; a hands-on, student-centered educational experience imparts practical knowledge that can be immediately put to use; and world-class facilities for all aspects of your college life, from the classroom and labs to residence halls, dining halls to recreational facilities. Mahurin Honors College, Kentucky’s first honors college, fosters excellence in all forms of expression: research and experiential learning, critical thinking, active citizenship, and international engagement.

Second is the value of that experience. While tuition sticker price has risen, the average net cost (tuition, room, board, books minus scholarships and financial aid) has fallen at WKU. We have been intentional in redirecting and increasing financial aid to more of a need-based model to ensure anyone who wants to attend our university has the opportunity.

Third, the benefits are both immediate and long-term. Students learn about community, develop friendships, and experience other cultures and ways of thinking all while developing the skills they need to be successful in their futures. Studies show college graduates earn up to 65 percent more every week than high school graduates and are more likely to show higher satisfaction with their lives.

Postsecondary Education by the Numbers

• Kentucky’s 132 postsecondary institutions had more than 264,000 students enrolled in the spring of 2018; 57 percent were female and
43 percent were male.

• In the 2016-2017 academic year, 25,469 diplomas or undergraduate certificates were conferred.

• Kentucky has eight public universities; 16 Kentucky Community and Technical College System campuses; 19 not-for-profit institutions; 19 other Kentucky independent institutions; and 63 licensed out-of-state institutions.


Lorie Hailey is special publications editor for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]

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