Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

College costs: ‘Belle Knox’ aside, the real shame is that many can’t see higher ed in their future

For a family living on the 2011 median U.S. salary of $50,054, a private university education is either truly unattainable or is something that will be financed by a combination of some grants, probably a lot of loans, and a lot of work of some sort done by the student.

When I first heard about Miriam Weeks, the Duke University freshman who is paying for her tuition, books and designer handbags by working as the porn star “Belle Knox,” I expected to hear about the shame and degradation of it all. Or whether Weeks was a feminist cut from another, albeit skimpier, cloth. Or how the porn business really doesn’t support women’s sexual freedom as much as some in the industry might claim (perhaps when they’re not on sexually-transmitted-diseases medical leave).

Mary Stanik

What I thought I’d hear more of, save for a March 13 Washington Post column, is how the high cost of higher education really may be why Weeks spends her school breaks as a Rough Sex Specialist.

Within the last year or so, we’ve heard a lot about how a college education has become nearly unattainable for many in the working and middle classes. What we’ve not heard enough about is what some current and would-be college students might feel they must do to pay for a quality education, aside from taking out loans in amounts that might buy decent homes in many areas. 

$45,620 tuition for one year

Information on Duke’s website shows that the average one-year cost for a Duke undergraduate is $61,404, including $45,620 in tuition. It has been said that Weeks’ mother recently lost her job and that her father is an Army physician. We don’t know the actual Weeks family financial circumstances, though it was reported in the March 10 Daily Mail (U.K.) that her father earns more than $200,000 per year and that her parents own a $477,730 Spokane, Wash. home, carrying a $460,607 mortgage.

We do know that for a family living on the 2011 median U.S. salary of $50,054, a private university education is either truly unattainable or is something that will be financed by a combination of some grants, probably a lot of loans, and a lot of work of some sort done by the student.

Duke’s website also contains guidelines as to how education might be financed for a student coming from a family with a $55,000 annual income. Duke, like many private as well as public schools, says the majority of its financial aid is based on need rather than on merit. As such, Duke says that with a $55,000-per-year family income a student could expect to have his or her family contribute $2,200. Another $2,200 would come from a work-study job, there would be $3,000 in loans, and grants would cover $54,104.

As I said, we don’t know the exact circumstances of the Weeks family finances but my guess is that Weeks likely would not qualify for that much grant support. She may qualify for those loans that could buy a house in cities like Dallas or Bangor, Me. So, instead of owing a house for her elite university education, Weeks decided, while working the waitress job she had in high school, that she was “being degraded ” and turned to porn. It has been reported that Weeks earns between $1,500 and $2,000 per film shoot. Let’s face it, few waiters, even the most experienced ones working in the poshest places, regularly take home $2,000 a day ferrying lobster and champagne to the swells. If they ferry drugs or flammable secrets, that might be another story.

How about public schools?

Some have said Weeks could have been like many of her peers and chosen a less expensive school — maybe even a public university. Basic tuition for 13 or more semester credits for an in-state student at the University of Minnesota currently costs $6,030. Add the expenses Duke estimates for room ($6,354), board ($5,580) and books/personal expenses ($3,580) and you’re still talking $21,544 per year. That’s not a sum that would be easy for that $50,054 median-income American family to fork over annually, but any loans that might be needed probably would not buy any sort of house.

Still, the $29,400 the average student owed in loans in 2012 is not easily paid off if the student is among the young people who have been greatly affected by the Great Lingering Recession, living with parents and earning (if they’re lucky) about $1,000 per month as minimum-wage baristas or clerks.

As for Weeks, given our sex-obsessed-yet-doggedly-puritanical society, I’m not shocked by her decision to work in porn, although I don’t like it. I do know that unless we do something about cost, access and realistic expectations regarding higher education among all parties (including students, parents, university faculty/administrators, elected officials, and employers), we are certain to hear about more young people working their way through school on porn-film sets or strip-club stages. As well as many who believe any sort of higher education exceeds their most earnest grasp.

And if you want to talk about shame and degradation, that last outcome is one that is particularly worthy of such feelings.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/20/2014 - 03:23 pm.

    If you want to increase the price of something

    subsidize it.

    The cost of college tuition rises in direct proportion to the increase in Pell Grants and other tuition aid. The average rate of growth in college costs have been 2-3 times the rate of inflation since the 1980s.

    The only way to slow down or stop the increase in costs is to slow down or decrease the grants. Let the market decide who can afford what and quit subsidizing poor career choices.

    We need to stop telling kids that a four-year degree in American Studies is worth the $20,000 a year expense and direct more kids to vocational school where they can learn a trade that actually pays for itself. We need more electricians and fewer college graduates who have no marketable skills.

    I spent over $100,000 to send my oldest to Macalester to get a degree in musicology. He currently makes a very good living using the IT skills that I taught him for free.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 03/21/2014 - 01:45 am.


      We expect private industry to pay for their own job training and leave higher education to its intended purpose, creating well rounded, civic minded, and critically thinking citizens. While knowledge of how to insert widget A into widget B is useful for its purpose, I’d prefer my children to have a bit broader view of the world.

    • Submitted by kelly barnhill on 03/21/2014 - 02:27 pm.

      University-level education is HIGHLY subsidized in other countries, and the costs are lower. My brother recently completed his medical degree at the University of Minnesota, where in-state tuition is over fifty grand a year. His good friend did his medical degree in England. Per year tuition? Zero dollars. Our neighbors to the North also heavily subsidize higher ed. College costs in Canada are much lower than here, as are medical school costs. Subsidation does not necessarily mean higher costs. There are other factors at work here.

      At some point, we have to ask ourselves if it is worth it to us to have a deeply educated population. I feel that it is.

  2. Submitted by Andrew Urevig on 03/21/2014 - 12:07 am.

    One Factual Correction

    Stanik writes that 13+ credits for instate students at the U of M is $6,030 “per year.” She is mistaken.

    In reality, instate U of M undergraduates pay $12,060 per year in tuition. The number that Stanik cites is the per-semester rate. The confusion is understandable, as the page which she likely looked at ( does seem to imply that $6,030 is the yearly tuition. Alas, it is not.

    Annual U of M Twin Cities undergrad tuition rates dating back to the 1960-1961 school year can be found at this link:

  3. Submitted by Wes Bowling on 03/22/2014 - 07:45 am.

    Think Outside The Box

    According to, a general MBA can be obtained for as little as $6k and as high as $120k. If students would do a little research, they would find that it is not nearly as expensive to get a college degree.

  4. Submitted by mark wallek on 03/25/2014 - 10:00 am.

    A healthy educated nation

    As I grew up in the 1950’s the refrain I always heard was “a healthy educated nation” is good for democracy. Today, the consequeces of capitalizing the health and education arenas for profit is obvious: wealth for a very few, lower quality across the board for the many. It’s obvious that Corporate culture is eclipsing human centered interaction, to the detriment of large numbers, but to the benefit of an influential few. The fact that we as a nation are not in the streets attests to the success of dumbing down and fattening up the population. Add to that the creation of obligated payments for auto and health insurance that last, theoretically, from cradle to grave, and you add more weight to the struggle of keeping one’s nose above the water line. What is next? Certainly not a presence in the streets. The corp press is very effective at disemboweling a protest as we saw with the “Occupy” movement. This is a failing nation, regardless of how the spin is spun. Nobody looking at reality can say it’s better today, unless the view is along that narrow line of one percent of the view field.

Leave a Reply