Cutting College Costs for the next Colonel Sanders

Kentucky Fried Chicken is now the world’s second largest fast food company in terms of sales. The company has restaurants in 118 countries, and last year the state of Kentucky was among the top 10 producers of poultry products in the United States, producing around 1.7 Million pounds of poultry. Yet, the state’s universities produced exactly 0 poultry science graduates. There are no shortage of Commonwealth students interested in becoming the next Colonel Sanders, but the degree specifically tailored to one of Kentucky’s largest agricultural exports just isn’t offered at public institutions in the state.

In general, states try to make sure the academic programs they offer align with their major industries. In North Carolina, a state with a long history of textile manufacturing, NC State University’s fashion and textile design major has become a leader in the field. UC Davis, nestled right beside California wine country, has a top-notch viticulture and enology major. Looking for a degree in automotive engineering? Head to Ann Arbor or East Lansing. So, if poultry is such an economic driver for the Commonwealth (and it is – in 2014, total salaries and wages in the Kentucky totaled over $130 million in the poultry industry), shouldn’t the university be set up to offer academic programs that support poultry engineers?

Here’s the problem – academic degree programs are expensive to set up and maintain, especially programs in agricultural, medical, and STEM fields. They are even harder to fund at levels that push them to the limits of cutting edge research and instruction. Furthermore, while the University of Kentucky’s academic program isn’t aligned to poultry, it certainly plays a role in the state’s other well-known cultural and economic exports as it offers a degree in equine science and management and plans to offer a certificate in distillation sciences. Should it fund its other economically aligned programs at lower levels just so it can start a new one?

And more importantly, what does all of this have to do with cutting college costs?

Kentucky has an answer to its poultry problem. The state is part of a regional tuition exchange called the Academic Common Market, which allows Kentucky students to attend public universities in other states at in-state prices if the student meets certain GPA requirements and none of the public universities in Kentucky offer a student’s chosen major. So, for instance, students in Kentucky who want to study poultry science can go to the University of Georgia (the state where both Chick-Fil-A and Popeye’s have their corporate headquarters, and the nation’s top producer of chicken) at near-in-state prices. Kentucky students get the opportunity to dream big about their futures as chicken tycoons, while the Commonwealth supports one of its major industries without spending a dime. What does the state of Georgia get in return? The ability to send all aspiring future Steve McCurrys to Western Kentucky University for a discounted degree in photojournalism.

These exchanges don’t apply only to undergraduate programs. The state of Arkansas has no forensic science graduate degree programs, but clearly the police in the “Land of Opportunity” don’t call across state borders every time they need a crime scene analyzed. When the Alabama Crimson Tide football team needs to hire someone who has a master’s degree in athletic training, they can’t look to Alabama institutions for those graduates. With both states in the Academic Common Market, however, Nick Saban can hire trainers who are Alabama residents from the University of Arkansas, and CSI: Little Rock can be staffed with graduates from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

(Note: This post was adapted from an earlier, much longer post on my LinkedIn page).


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