WKU President discusses challenges on college campus during pandemic

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HENDERSON, Ky. (WEHT) – Western Kentucky University is one of many college around the United States to welcome students back on campus this Fall.

President Dr. Timothy Caboni appeared on Eyewitness News Daybreak Wednesday morning. Sitting down with anchor Jake Boswell, Dr. Caboni discussed the challenges in running a major university during the COVID pandemic. What follows is a transcript of the interview:

Jake: I have to first get to the pandemic and how this has been not only in the spring of last year, whenever the semester was finishing up. But now as we go into a new school year, what has been the biggest challenge to pull off a new school year now with students back on campus down in Bowling Green?

Dr. Caboni: Well, it was amazingly easy to go remote. We all just went home and took a pause and started teaching from away. The more challenging portion of the COVID pandemic for us has been how do we come back to campus? How do we do it in a way that provides the full WKU experience? And how do we make sure that our students are being supported and engaged in the way we would do it in a non-COVID environment? And so we have multiple modalities. 60% of our courses have some in-person component, a third are fully online. But how is it that we continue to live beside this virus to provide the out of classroom experience that young people choose WKU for and that’s been probably the hardest thing for us to do.

Jake: Warren County right now since the pandemic has started, which is where Western Kentucky University is located, has more than 4,300 confirmed cases of COVID. That’s more than Evansville, which is a city that is much bigger than Bowling Green, how are you letting the students know on campus and in the surrounding satellite campuses, just how serious this virus is where they’re at?

Dr. Caboni: I couldn’t be more proud of our students and our community, particularly the university community, we have a set of Healthy on the Hill guidelines that we spent months assembling. And what we see is no spread of the virus in an instructional setting, that we can continue to teach and instruct in a way where people sit six feet apart, they wear their masks, they wash their hands, and then we can continue to do that in a safe manner. I think the larger challenges when you get off campus and students want to be social, they’re gonna have to give that up this year. And so what we’ve seen is really a decline in cases on campus during the course of the semester, as folks really get used to learning in a different environment. But I couldn’t be more proud of our students, they are sacrificing a little bit so they can have a lot of the WKU experience.

Jake: Dr. Caboni in the last 10 years, that’s whenever I got to campus at Western Kentucky University, tuition has gone up about 50% in that time, and obviously budget challenges is something that every university in college is facing around the country. This pandemic, I’d imagine may make that even worse over the next few years. So what are you doing financially as far as a university to kind of look ahead as we come out of the pandemic. You recently announced something when it comes to border states, or surrounding Kentucky and the university, is that kind of meant to help when it comes to financial burdens for students.

Dr. Caboni: So what we know is over the past decade, our state appropriation has declined. But at the same time our tuition has gone up. And that puts pressure on students and their families to be able to afford what we think is a remarkable experience for them. We made an intentional effort last year to change our Merit Scholarship Program to make the ACT not necessary any longer for Merit Scholarship. So if you get a 3.0 and you’re an in-State student, you have access to scholarship dollars, rewarding for years of work instead of one day of testing. This year, we expanded that to our border states meaning that if you’re in one of the seven states that touches Kentucky, Evansville, Indiana, one of those states an important area for us. We have 600 students now from Indiana, 150 freshmen last year, primarily from the Evansville area, you can come to WKU next fall at in-state rate, and you have access to that Merit Scholarship Program. So get a 3.0 graduate from high school, and if you’re one of those seven states, you can come and WKU would in-state rate and have access to our Merit Scholarship Program. It’s a remarkable investment in affordability and access for our students. We’re an institution that changes lives. And we want to make sure that no matter someone’s family’s economic condition, they have access to our university.

Jake: Dr. Caboni. We’re almost out of time. But one last quick question for you is with the rising cost of a college education right now with what we’re seeing in the country. Is it more valuable now maybe than ever, as far as what an education can be? But is the affordability, is it matching the value you see that over the next few years?

Dr. Caboni: So we’re going to continue pushing to make sure that it’s affordable. What we see in the pandemic is if you look at the unemployment rates, those who have a Bachelor’s Degree had been much less harmed than those who do not and so there’s a great value in getting a college degree. We’re going to do everything in state to make that affordable, including if you have Pell eligible and 3.0 you can come and tuition free as we announced last week.

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(This story was originally published on September 30, 2020)

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