While in Lexington for a conference recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a tour of several new buildings at the University of Kentucky. I’m no stranger to UK, being on or near UK’s campus almost monthly for sporting events and other visits of business or pleasure. And although I am frequently a guest in one of UK’s athletics facilities, I rarely have a chance to peek inside the academic and residential buildings. I was excited for the opportunity. The new UK Gatton Student Center, renovations to the College of Engineering, and new residence halls were especially impressive.
The student center is a beautiful 378,000 sq ft facility that greets visitors with a gorgeous limestone facade and features a bookstore, two dining areas (residential and retail), a fitness/wellness center, and the nicest cinema I’ve ever stepped foot in, boasting a seating capacity north of 500. The social staircase and meeting areas were open and inviting. Glass and flat screen displays were everywhere. This was nothing like my experience at Georgetown College, a liberal arts school just down the road, 20 years in the past.
The College of Engineering classrooms were packed with technology and furniture flexible enough to be arraigned in whatever configuration best met the needs of the students on that particular day. Glass, flat screen displays, and inviting collaboration areas were everywhere here, as well. Each building and space more impressive than the next. Everything was open, clean, student-centric, sharp, logically-designed, and full of elegant simplicity. This was unlike any educational facility I had ever seen.
The new residential housing complex was so nice, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Suite-style living, each bedroom featuring a Tempur-Pedic memory foam mattress, study spaces on each floor, covered bike parking, wired and wireless internet, granite countertops in the kitchen and bathroom, plus a 24/7 staffed front desk. This reminded me more of a luxury highrise apartment than a college dormitory.
If you ever take in an impressive construction project, your mind is going to eventually wander to the question: “how much did it cost?” No exception here; I had to know. Although nearly every new endeavor at UK, and most other universities, is launched by a private financial gift (usually rewarded with the benefactor’s name being put on the building), that covers only a small percentage of the total dollars spent. I was shocked to see the price tag on some of the recent ventures.
The total cost of construction for recent on-campus housing additions at UK is $450 million…to add just 6,850 new beds. By comparison, Kirwin and Blanding tower residential complexes, which are scheduled to be demolished at a cost of $15 million later this year, cost just $22 million to build in 1967. The Gatton Student Center carried with it a cost of $200 million. Those enrolled at UK will help pay for the $160 million of that project not funded by private donations over the next 30 years via ‘student fees’ built in to the overall tuition cost. That’s a lot of money.
The facilities are nice, there is no denying that. Really nice. And I loved every minute I spent in them. But soon after I answered the “how much” question I found myself asking the “why” question. Why did we need to invest this kind of money into new on-campus facilities at our flagship university? Maybe the dorms and student center were in need of updating, or even replacement, but did we need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on those new spaces? I think not. It’s not that UK students don’t need safe, convenient spaces to learn and explore their dreams, it’s because every trend in post-secondary education points to lower enrollment in traditional, four-year colleges.
Currently, about 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in college immediately after completing their K-12 education. But just one year later, nearly a quarter of them are gone, and over half will never earn a bachelor’s degree. First year enrollment is up, but completion and retention and trending downward. In terms of our economy’s need, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. According to a study by economist Kevin Fleming (1-2-7 Ratio) only about 3 of every 10 jobs in our country requires a four-year degree. The bottom line is we are sending way too many kids to four-year colleges.
This message is beginning to stick. Community and technical college enrollment is up across the country. Many states, including Kentucky via the Work-Ready scholarship, offer free technical education courses in the high-demand areas of manufacturing, logistics, skilled trades, and healthcare. Many associate’s degree programs can be completed with little or no student debt upon completion. There’s no $450 million dorm complex or $200 million student center to help pay off. How many marketable, employable credentials could those hundreds of millions of dollars have funded? Every cent invested in career and technical education pays back the community that invested it…dollars spent on dormitories only depreciate (see the Kirwin/Blanding tower example above).
Dual-credit courses are also on the rise nationwide. More and more students are taking college-level courses while in high school and receiving credit both places. Some are even splitting time their junior and senior years between high school and college campuses. Students are graduating with industry-recognized credentials, diplomas, and dozens of hours towards an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
As more and more students see the value and earnings potential of middle-skill careers and as more post-secondary education finds its way into high school, the result is not hard to predict. Traditional, four-year university enrollment will decrease significantly, as will average duration of stay on those campuses. Degrees that traditionally have taken four years to earn, may only require two to three years, depending on how many dual credit courses students challenge themselves with in high school. Students will spend less time on campus and spend less money on tuition.
So why the recent building spree at UK? It makes little financial sense in a country where we already have over $900 billion in student loan debt. Why invest in student services, comfort, and housing when everything points to students physically being on campus less? To secure a spot at the newly-finished Lewis Hall at UK, one will pay $4,548 per semester (16 weeks)…that’s a shade over $1,100 per month! We have yet to even consider the recent trend of online classes, which can be delivered and viewed anywhere in the world, completely eliminating the need for dorm living. Wouldn’t those dollars be more responsibly invested with community college and technical education providers? What about developing affordable housing options near our KCTCS campus locations instead of spending $65,000 per new bed at the University of Kentucky?
Higher education funding allocations have been slowly decreasing over the past two decades. According to a 2018 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Kentucky funding for public colleges was $7 billion less for the school year that ended in 2018 than it was in 2008. WIth higher ed budgets getting tighter each year, each dollar spent must be scrutinized, invested wisely, and should support Kentucky’s economy. I’m not sure $650 million for a student center and dorm facility would meet that criteria.
Jeremy Faulkner is Director of Business Services for Tenco Workforce Development Board (Kentucky Career Center) and Buffalo Trace Area Development District