By now everyone has heard the statistic that American students and graduates owe more than $1 trillion on student loans. But while everyone knows what these students did with their loans, it’s far less clear what the colleges are doing with all this money.
In his new book College (Un)bound, Jeffrey Selingo took a closer look at college spending and found that while some of the money is being spent on academics, a good deal of it goes toward massively expensive yet completely unnecessary facilities meant to lure students. In an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, he said:
“College now, today, has many jobs, right, and one of the jobs is maturing students and giving them kind of a comfortable place to live while they’re going to school for four years. And so now we see, you know, these palatial dorms that have been built on many campuses — they have their own private bedroom and they share a kitchen and, you know, you go into a dining hall now and you have sushi in the dining hall. You have climbing walls, which I think everybody has, but now you even have these lazy rivers where you can get in an inner tube and go down. [...]
“Well, they … [improved facilities] in the last decade when enrollment was going up, when money was free-flowing, you know. Most parents were using their homes as ATMs to pay for college, because of the housing market. And now suddenly those bills are coming due, and the problem is that the students are either not there or they’re unwilling to pay the money to fund those things.”
This is a problem we’ve seen before. Due to the abundance of easily-available governmet loans, colleges have had little reason to compete on price, instead choosing to lure students through expensive projects like those seen in the video above. But we’re starting to see early signs that students are becoming more sensitive to price, which could spell trouble for schools that invested heavily in white elephant projects like these.
In addition to the points about frivolous college spending, the interview hits on a number of other themes we’ve discussed here at length, including the rise of MOOCs, the challenges facing many liberal arts colleges, and the appeal of programs that reward students for what they learn rather than how long they spend sitting in classrooms:
“This idea of competency-based education, which I think is perhaps the most disruptive force potentially entering higher education — so, right now we measure learning by time spent in a seat. They test you on the way in, they see what you know, and you basically focus on what you don’t know. What I think the disruption will be is that some students could finish in 2 1/2 years. There’s nothing really magic about 120 credits in four years. It’s just tradition.”
The interview is filled with interesting observations like this, and is worth listening to in its entirety. Listen to the full broadcast here.