By Laurie Laker ’12
Examining oneself is never easy. Colorado College President Jill Tiefenthaler’s Block 5 class, The Economics of Higher Education, which she is team teaching with her husband and college research professor Kevin Rask, is one such opportunity for CC students and faculty to do that work.
A higher-level economics course, this class takes a unique look at the shifting financial landscape of higher education, applying economic theory, data analysis, and meetings with local and national experts to discuss and dissect issues of prestige, admissions, financial aid, endowments, and so on.
The class often turns the lens on Colorado College itself, offering students a rare insight into the college’s decision-making process, with direct access to both the college’s president and another of the field’s foremost experts (Rask).
“Jill teaches a lot of the higher education-specific material,” explains Elianna Clayton ’20, an economics major. “I actually took econometrics with Kevin, and he encouraged me to take this class when it was next offered. Jill’s brilliant, truly brilliant. She’s very messy on the board, re-drawing loads of graphs and charts, but she’s such an expert in this material, too.”
It’s rare that the heads of prominent institutions set foot in classrooms at all, never mind take on a daily teaching commitment on top of their administrative and leadership duties.
“It gives me a chance to be with students in a different way,” explains Tiefenthaler. “I interact regularly with a lot of student leaders and groups, but it’s rare that I get to meet them in an everyday capacity. This class allows me to get to know them on a more personal level.”
The focus of the class isn’t new to Tiefenthaler or Rask, both of whom are field experts, professors, and longtime economics researchers with a higher education focus.
“That interest started for us when we were teaching at Colgate University,” explains Rask. “At the time, Colgate didn’t have an institutional research office. I was teaching statistics and econometrics, and Jill was juggling professorial and administrative roles. I found that my students had questions about how things worked in higher education, so my research was really a coming together of three interested parties — the university, my students, and myself.”
One such interested party for the class at present is economics and political science double-major (and Chinese minor) Rowan Rockafellow ’20.
“It’s probably the most quintessentially CC class I’ve ever taken,” he says. “Jill and Kevin both have an insane amount of access to people in this field, from the presidents of other universities in Colorado Springs to the Colorado Department of Education and CC’s lobbyist in Denver, the network we’ve been able to interact with is second-to-none.”
The class met locally with leaders and students at both Pikes Peak Community College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, as well as with members of the Colorado Department of Education in Denver in recent weeks.
“It’s so important to get us thinking about the larger decision-making process involved in the college experience,” says Clayton. “Every single thing I experience as a student here, it has a purpose and a decision behind it. It’s about learning how the money invested in me, in my time here, is put back into the market in an effective way.”
It’s quite unusual in economics that the consumers of an industry simultaneously become outputs from that same industry. In higher education, “the students are the consumers, but they’re also a direct output of the experience they’re consuming,” explains Rask. “This class positions our students with knowledge, hopefully allowing them to take away an appreciation for the inherent issues and challenges that are involved in running a nonprofit business such as CC.”
The future of higher education itself, and indeed CC in particular, hinges upon that understanding — both from the student level and the administrative.
“For the first time, we’re seeing closures of institutions beyond one or two a year, and we continue to see more stress placed on small, private institutions like CC,” says Tiefenthaler.
“The stronger schools keep getting stronger, and my job — both in the classroom and beyond — is to make sure CC remains one of those. What contributes to our strength is what every other college would wish to have, our distinctiveness and consistent financial support.”