The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Colleges Double Down on Luxury Housing

Quad

Sky-high tuition rates may be driving millions of students into debt, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping colleges from pouring money into fancy amenities. A new piece in The New Republic discusses how colleges are increasingly turning to posh construction companies to build state-of-the-art dorms with granite countertops, pools, and personal bathrooms that have more in common with luxury hotels than traditional dorms. Apparently there’s a method to this madness:

The scramble to upgrade college dorms began as a response to changing demographics. Despite everything you hear about the record numbers of applicants for elite schools, in many parts of the country the pool of college-bound high school students is flat or shrinking. If you subtract those students who can’t afford a residential school, the market becomes even tighter. The result is a growing competition for students, especially for the top-scoring, high-achieving kind. Schools figure that if they can offer commodious, well-appointed living quarters, they’ll have a better chance of winning over top prospects….

College officials estimate that 60 percent of their applicants have never shared a bedroom. So when they commission new student housing, the goal is bigger units, more private bedrooms and a lot more social space. Very few new dorms are being built with common showers, even though it’s the more economical way to go. In the typical dorm suite, one bathroom for every two students is now the standard ratio.

This is problematic enough on its own, but it’s more troubling that this trend is picking up steam at community colleges, which had long existed as a low-cost alternative to four-year residential schools, catering to locals and commuter students. Yet as the WSJ reports, many community colleges, concerned by their relatively low graduation rates, have been upgrading dorms and other campus amenities to lure students and keep them enrolled:

Thomas Coley, Ivy Tech chancellor for the state’s north central and northwest region, said his school is in “catch-up mode” to offer services like other community colleges.

Critics of Mr. Coley’s master plan, which included a new performing-arts center, question if these expenditures are the best use of funds in an era of cash-strapped budgets. But Mr. Coley maintains that these purchases will pay off in the long run.

“There is much greater emphasis on student engagement and student retention,” he said, who also added funds for a student-life director and more events on campus. “It’s all part of our development of student life.”

It’s good that colleges are trying to compete for students, but this is absolutely the wrong way to go about it. If colleges really want to convince more students to attend, the best thing to do would be to lower tuition to the point where most of them can graduate without significant debt. Attracting students with various forms of campus luxury only helps to send them into penury after graduation.

[College quad image courtesy of Shutterstock]

Published on September 20, 2013 5:00 pm
  • lukelea

    Yale takes the cake in that department.

  • Anthony

    Professor Mead is pretty good at getting to the essence of the problem in many areas, yet after massive coverage of this issue, he has yet to spell out a very simple solution to this problem. If student debt were to become dischargeable in bankruptcy court – say after 10 years, to prevent people from wiping the slate clean right after graduation – this whole house of cards will collapse. Bankruptcy is a feedback mechanism that corrects malinvestment, and it’s cleansing power is sorely needed in this area.

    Colleges don’t have an incentive to lower costs because naive students can “afford” to pay the ridiculously high tuition by borrowing themselves rich. Bankruptcy will put an end to this disgraceful situation. And btw folks: I don’t have a dime in student debt.

    • David Wall

      It wasn’t that long ago when anyone who did not have the money to pay for their college tuition was compelled to convince others to help them: a relative or friend willing to do so, a banker who is convinced of repayment, or a college that was willing to give up some or all tuition in hopes of getting a student they wanted–usually for the academic or athletic status the student brought with them. All giving was voluntary and done with free choice.

      The immoral and impractical system we have now is a direct result of loans coming from tax money–others people’s, complete strangers’, money. Millions of tax payers who have no say so in the decision to approve the individual’s loan or not.

      The results of the current system are horrific–as any serious person can see. But the only effective argument against the current college loan system is a moral argument. It doesn’t matter if it leads to crippling student debt, a concomitant inflation in tuition rates or not–which it obviously has. Lamenting the terrible result we have now, like this article does, without giving a solution based upon the moral principle involved is fruitless.The proper argument against and the proper solution is to say government has no moral justification in giving out student loans, and it should stop doing it.

      • Anthony

        Very good points. If the debt were dischargable in bankruptcy, the government and private lenders were get out of the educational lending business, and fast.

      • Anthony

        Sometimes I think that people with a massive amount of student debt,
        which is a small but real minority of students, should leave the country
        and never come back. Males in this group should give very serious
        consideration to joining the french foreign legion, which provides a new
        name and french passport after five years service.

  • Jane the Actuary

    Making student debt discharable won’t have anything like a positive effect if the government continues to guarantee the loans!

    But in any case, this is a really disturbing business model. The parents they’re trying to attract, the ones paying full-freight, they imagine to be so wealthy that money’s no object, but I simply can’t believe that’s true. I look at the formula, I see that they penalize savers, so that the ones with the high Expected Family Contribution are likely to be exactly those who watch their pennies, and I can’t imagine that my family stands alone, and everyone else will happily fritter away their hard-earned money to give Junior a dorm room with granite countertops. http://janetheactuary.blogspot.com/2013/08/heres-another-thing-that-bugs-me-about.html