I was talking with one of my UMD students about his progress toward a degree. More importantly, we talked about whether making progress toward a degree was moving him forward in his life.

An undergraduate degree isn’t an end in itself; it’s a step on a path, and sometimes a student has a path in mind that can be better served by skipping majors, transferring campuses, or changing colleges. In the last case, we look at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, or MNSCU, schools, too.

With some surprise, this student noted that tuition at the University of Minnesota Duluth is 150% of what tuition is at Mankato or Bemidji.

“Why do you think that that is?” I asked.

The student struggled a bit. Perhaps the dorms at UMD are fancier. The dining center was recently remodeled. The student presumed that the physical plant justified the tuition difference.

I tried to show him that the tuition difference instead was justified by what tuition pays for: the quality of education. Opportunities to work in labs place students in research that transforms our understanding of the Great Lakes (with the Large Lakes Observatory) or the human organism (studying the effects of iron deficiency on brain development). In my home, the College of Liberal Arts, there are communication labs for studying the effects of video games on mood and emotion and a “participatory media lab” that helps turn people into storytellers and researchers. Under the University of Minnesota’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, students can work with nearly every faculty member on campus on their research.

My student was surprised. He had been enrolled at UMD for more than a year and hadn’t yet thought about academics as anything more than coursework. It seemed natural to the student that he needed to seek out clubs (and sports and theater and fraternities and sororities) to enhance his experience of the university. It wasn’t natural to take a similar initiative in academics.

After our conversation, the student sought those opportunities with verve. After all, he said playfully, those opportunities were what he was paying for.

As both a faculty member and resident of Duluth, I wonder whether we appreciate what it means to host a major public university in our city. I wonder whether we appreciate the ways UMD is more than just grades 13-16 and an extension of our K-12 system.

Unlike our colleagues in the community college system, faculty at UMD carry a research mission. We work to create knowledge. Some of that knowledge (for example, research done in sociology, criminology, and women’s studies) is directly engaged with the community. (I’m still in awe of Beth Bartlett’s “Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior,” which lives the process of making knowledge with and about the community.)

I’m grateful for the opportunities to do that research myself. In 2019, I co-edited a collection of essays on the ways that corporations attempt to normalize the oil industry through advertising and public relations. I completed the book’s introduction while the Husky refinery was on fire. My research and my teaching never felt so relevant as that afternoon. UMD makes that possible for me.

UMD is an institution that makes it possible for students to engage in significant, meaningful work with faculty because that faculty engages in significant, meaningful work with our community. I wonder whether we feel the power of the possibilities in that.

David Beard is an associate professor of rhetoric at the University of Minnesota Duluth.