Duke’s student porn star brings attention to escalating college costs

March 13, 2014

In this Aug. 6, 2011 file picture, students attend graduation ceremonies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The cost of a college education increased by 1,120 percent from 1978 to 2012. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

There seems to be more questions than answers regarding the Duke University freshman who announced her work as porn star “Belle Knox” will pay the tab for her high-priced education at the prestigious North Carolina school.

But one question does stand out: Is this truly the best way for her to pay for a college education? (I’ll admit that I find the idea of what she’s doing more than troubling.)

Yet that’s what Knox told Playboy in an online interview. When asked if this was really about “the skyrocketing cost of higher education in America,” Knox replied, “Absolutely. My story is a testament to how f— expensive school is.”

She’s right about the expense. The cost of a college education increased 1,120 percent from 1978 to 2012. That’s almost double the rise in medical costs and quadruple the Consumer Price Index.

Knox explained: “The fact that the only viable options to pay for college are to take out gigantic student loans, to not go to college at all or to join the sex industry really says something.”

What about the financial aid office at Duke? Visit the Web site and you’ll learn that more than half of the school’s undergraduates receive financial aid. A dandy pie chart shows how that aid breaks down for a family with an annual income of $55,000: expected family contribution of $2,100, work-study $2,200, loans $3,000 and grants $54,104.

We don’t know the exact details of Knox’s family financial situation. It’s been rumored her father’s a doctor, that he’s just returned from military service in Afghanistan, that her mother’s lost her job. Knox herself mentioned her family’s “significant financial burden” in an online essay.

She’s said she received $15,000 a year in financial aid, but that leaves more than $45,000 for either her or her family to pay. That’s when she decided to turn to porn rather than borrow money.

Otherwise, in four years, she would owe $180,000 — the price of a home in many parts of the country. It’s no wonder that student loan debt is now more than $1 trillion — more than what Americans owe on their credit cards.

I don’t understand why Knox didn’t ask her financial aid counselor at school for help. Duke’s Web site goes into great detail on how aid is calculated, and in a section titled “Special Circumstances,” explains that the family contribution can be adjusted when “a dramatic change in income” occurs. Financial aid counselors are experienced at dealing with such circumstances, especially with today’s volatile economy and job market.

It also seems odd that Knox didn’t get concerned about her $20,000-a-semester bill until after she’d started classes. “Sticker shock” shouldn’t happen after you’ve enrolled.

More and more students are allowing finances to dictate which school they choose, according to a study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. While 75.5 percent of students surveyed were admitted to their first-choice school, only 56.9 percent enrolled, instead opting for institutions that offered better financial aid packages or that simply cost less. In fact, 45.9 percent of students said cost was a “very important” factor, up 15 percentage points over the last decade. 

Perhaps this is just a lesson in reality. We’d all like to drive a Ferrari or a Jaguar but end up with a Volkswagen or a Ford. Or sometimes a bicycle.

Last summer President Barack Obama proposed a plan to make college more affordable for the middle class, and that plan included the development of a ratings system to measure the value of colleges. The so-called sticker price for schools has been compared to airline tickets; no one pays the same price. But information available from the College Cost and Transparency Center can take away some of that mystery.

Knox may be doing future students a favor if her actions bring attention to the cost of college. How far are students willing to go to finance their educations?

Although I don’t agree with Knox’s decision to turn to porn, I can understand her frustration and her desperation to find a way to raise $45,000 a year.

Only she will be able to answer someday whether it was worth it.

 

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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