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Interview: Chancellor Robert Coombe discusses value

Q: How do you define value as it applies to a college education?

A: My definition of value has to do with personal growth. A part of that is intellectual growth — knowledge and ability — but also intellectual maturity, the growth of creativity, a change in how one’s mind works, how one applies it and how it can be focused. We do that well here. Our small classes and small student-to-faculty ratio are all focused on that kind of personal change.

I believe that we’ve moved in a direction that provides really extraordinary value for our students. One of the unique things about DU is undergraduate student access to faculty who are capable of teaching and scholarship in the highest-order graduate areas. One of the major elements of value for undergraduate students here is access to those high-end faculty members — the kinds of faculty members one would see in the very best research institutions in the country. But, at those research institutions, particularly in the large public colleges, undergraduate access is very limited. That’s just not the case here.

Q: There is a growing national concern about rising tuition rates, and DU is no exception. This fall, tuition is increasing 6.74 percent. Is a DU education really worth more than $29,000 dollars a year?

A: Absolutely it’s worth it. College is much more than learning some things so that one can start a profession and make money. Sure, it’s about that, but it’s also about what sort of person you are, how your mind works, whether or not you have become a more creative person, whether or not you have gained the ability to relate to a much broader array of human beings, whether or not your life is likely to have an impact outside of the money that you make. Those kinds of things are difficult to measure but make a college education of the sort that we offer something of great value.

Q: At what point do tuition increases become untenable, and what is DU doing to hold increases in check?

A: I believe there’s a limit to this. I’m not speaking just about DU at this point, but higher education in general. On the private institution side, you see a great deal of worry about the build-up of student debt. Loan burdens are beginning to skew students’ choices of disciplines and careers. We reach the limit when debt burden begins to restrict the directions that students choose for their lives and skews the value proposition I was speaking about earlier. If, financially, students are unable to realize the kinds of lives we hope to have prepared them for, then that’s the limit.

Q: What is DU doing to address that issue?

A: We want to get to the point where our students’ financial needs are fully met. A portion of that is likely to remain as debt, but we don’t want that to be a disproportionate amount. Right now, DU is unable to meet the full financial need of our undergraduates, and the need gap is roughly 20 percent. That’s too high. So, our first objective is to close that need gap.

Our tuition increases reflect rising costs, some of which are associated with investments in increasing academic quality. That’s an investment in the value that we’re offering to students, whether we’re talking about the Marsico Initiative, Cherrington Global Scholars or the kinds of salaries we have to put on the table to hire first-rate faculty. But, we’ve got to grow our financial aid faster than the growth of our operating costs. That’s an objective for the next several years, and a big part of that will be raising money. We need to build other sources of revenue, whether from annual giving or endowed scholarship funds, to close the financial need gap.

For DU to really get to where it wants to be institutionally, we need to vigorously attack that issue — holding down our costs to the extent that we possibly can but also providing much larger levels of financial aid so that we meet the financial need of every student who has the intellect, abilities and personal characteristics to be admitted here.

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