Guest Commentary

What the college admissions scandal teaches us about higher education in KC

Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, president of William Jewell College
Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, president of William Jewell College

As president of one of the many fine institutions of higher learning in greater Kansas City, I marvel at the recent scandal revealing that parents placed such a premium on so-called elite education that they bribed school officials to secure their children’s admission. Their actions reveal that for many, higher education has been reduced to currency, an experience leading not to purposeful lives, but transactional ones.

Their actions also reveal our culture’s often misplaced emphasis on brand over belonging — schools that emphasize faculty research agendas over schools that nurture students as well as educate them, schools that embrace all kinds of learners and not just the well-heeled or well-connected.

Parents who prioritize an elite brand are denying their children the chance to experience meaningful, personalized education — which is in robust supply in Kansas City. I spend time with presidents at the 17 colleges and universities serving the region. I can say with assurance that each of us strives to offer your children and grandchildren life-changing opportunities at price tags far below those of elite schools. And I would hold our outcomes up against any of them.

To give dimension to this claim, I would point first to the institution I know best, William Jewell College, which is both affordable and competitive in contrast with elite schools. Most Jewell students pay about $20,000 annually to earn degrees in high-paying fields such as civil engineering or data science. Earning degrees in these same fields at elite institutions is at least twice the cost. Few elite schools provide merit-based scholarships, whereas Jewell gives scholarships to over 90 percent of students. Elite schools enroll between 15 and 20 percent first-generation undergraduate students. At Jewell, one-third of our total student population is first-generation college students.

Indeed, Jewell joins all 17 Kansas City colleges and universities in being affordable and accessible compared with elite institutions. But isn’t it true that alumni from elite schools have greater opportunity for success? Elite schools are known for graduating business leaders, artists, athletes and legal scholars of renown. Yet schools in the Kansas City region have a similar record of success.

Stanford University, for example, graduated the CEO of Micron Technology and SanDisk, Sanjay Mehrotra. Baker University graduate David Hagan, retired CEO of Boingo Wireless, also shaped the burgeoning tech industry.

University of Southern California alumni are among America’s best-known actors and directors — and University of Kansas professor Kevin Willmott just won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the movie “BlacKkKlansman.” Wake Forest launched the career of NFL great Norm Snead, while Rockhurst University is alma mater to former Chiefs president Denny Thum. Georgetown University graduated astronaut John-David Bartoe, and UMKC graduated Juris Hartmanis, a renown computational theorist and winner of the ACM A.M. Turing Award. Currently no Yale alumni serve on the Connecticut Supreme Court, while Jewell has two alumni serving on the Supreme Court of Missouri. One of them is the chief justice.

Higher education in the region also, and uniquely, is partnering with industry and civic leaders to ensure that our graduates will help Kansas City thrive. KU Chancellor Doug Girod, Metropolitan Community College Chancellor Kim Beatty and I participate on the KC Rising steering committee as part of a collaborative effort to fuel workforce development needs with new offerings on our campuses. Members of our staff work closely with the Mid-America Regional Council to map trends in all sectors and create strategies for addressing gaps in the Kansas City workforce. Several college and university presidents serve on either the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce or the Kansas City Area Development Council boards, and all 17 of us partner with the Kauffman Foundation on the KC Scholars program, which ensures college access to hundreds of future leaders and thinkers in Kansas City.

All Kansas City institutions would hold their own just fine against elite schools, and each of us is devoted to improving lives and creating opportunities within our community. Just as the admissions scandal exposes a misguided interest in brand over belonging, let it also remind us that higher education in Kansas City is guided by integrity — and provides transformative opportunities for all who experience it.

Elizabeth MacLeod Walls is president of William Jewell College.