What's the Return on an Ashbrook Education?

December 24, 2020

When the Ashbrook Center asked University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds to speak last month about the inflated cost of American higher education, it invited some healthy scrutiny of its own programs.

Rapidly rising costs combined with persistent high demand for college have produced what Reynolds calls a “higher education bubble,” and what has happened to other over-subscribed investment opportunities will also happen, he says, in education. When the bubble bursts, some private colleges will go bankrupt, while other schools will have to drastically cut costs.

Reynolds commended Ashland University for announcing a 37% tuition reduction for the 2014-2015 academic year. “You’ve done most of the things I recommend universities do in terms of cutting tuition and trying to streamline graduation,” he said.

High school students invited by the Center to join other community members at the September 4th luncheon were advised by Reynolds to soberly evaluate return on investment when choosing college programs. Ashbrook Scholars—who’ve already made their choice—engaged Reynolds in private dialogue after the luncheon lecture, and gained other food for thought.

Some found Reynolds’ message refreshing and timely. “What Reynolds described—a 440% increase in tuition over the last 25 years, combined with ‘irrational enthusiasm’ about higher education and the availability of ‘cheap money’ in the form of government loans—those are the conditions necessary for a bubble,” said Joe Griffith, a senior Scholar from Medina, Ohio. Freshman Scholar Nicholas Bartulovic, from Twinsburg, Ohio, had researched the rising cost of education as his social justice project for an honors humanities course he took in high school; he said Reynolds confirmed his finding that much of the rise in education costs is driven by rising administrative costs, not by expansion of actual programs.

Still, while crediting Reynolds’ financial analysis, Griffith, Bartulovic, and other students wondered about its application to the Ashbrook Scholar program. “While many other college students are only focused on going to school to get a job,” Cyrus Massoudi, a senior from Windsor, Colorado said, Ashbrook Scholars pursue a “civic education,” and its value “is not easy to measure.”

Griffith elaborated: “If one is talking about technical or professional education—things like nursing, engineering, business, medicine—you can say, ‘If I spend $20,000 a year for four years on my education, and when I get out I’m making $100,000 a year, it’s worth it.’ I don’t know if you can talk about the value of the Ashbrook Scholar program in that way. The education Scholars get can be sought for its own sake. It sharpens your mind; it makes you a better person.

“Most schools, I think, teach in such a way that you can only reach a portion of your potential. But the Ashbrook program respects students enough to give them challenging work.” Instead of delivering facts, theories, and scholarly conclusions in the form of lectures, Griffith said, the program makes Scholars do their own thinking. “If you are studying Lincoln, you have to sit down and read Lincoln. Then you think about that in dialogue with professors and other students. There is no ‘download-ready’ part of the curriculum.”

Bartulovic, who had just been returned his first graded essay in the Scholar program, expects that his Scholar work will not only impart historical knowledge; it will teach him “how to write.” Danielle Wright, an Integrated Language Arts major who hopes to eventually teach English literature, says the Scholar program pushes her to do more than is necessary for a teaching credential. “We discuss hard topics that don’t have perfect answers; we’re given challenging writing assignments, such as being asked to wrestle with the question of whether the Founders were for or against slavery.” Dropping the political science minor and thus the Ashbrook Scholar program would make it easier for Wright to meet degree requirements in four years. “But I won’t. If it comes to it, I would rather enroll for an extra semester to do my student teaching than to drop courses that make college enjoyable for me.”

Reynolds argued that the popular pursuit of a college education has contributed to the development of a youth culture that poorly prepares adolescents for adult responsibility. Older eras apprenticed youth to adults, and so young people emulated adults. Today, teenagers herded together on college campuses tend to “act in ways that impress other teenagers,” often spending more time on risky forms of recreation than on study. Ashbrook Scholars, however, said they had little time for partying. “For most of us, we’re past that, or we were never really interested in it,” Wright said. “We tend to put off relaxation until after we are prepared for class.”

“Here, professors respect students enough to treat them as adults,” Griffith said. “Students can become legitimate friends of professors.” This can entail a refined form of relaxation; Griffith spoke of going to his thesis advisor’s home to discuss his topic over cigars. He doubts he could earn this privilege in another program. A student who serves as a Resident Advisor and interns in the campus ministry, Griffith has also worked in summer internships that the Ashbrook Center helped him secure, most recently at the Heritage Foundation. Such opportunities, several Scholars said, add a valuable practical dimension to the intellectual development that is the centerpiece of an Ashbrook Scholar’s education.