The New York Times reports today that “A decade-long spending binge to build academic buildings, dormitories and recreational facilities — some of them inordinately lavish to attract students — has left colleges and universities saddled with large amounts of debt.” It’s not hard to see why:
David K. Creamer, vice president for finance and business services at Miami University, said the importance of college rankings had pressured administrators to spend more and more. In some rankings, the effect of spending is direct because institutions with “the best dorms” or “the best athletic facilities” are singled out. The effect on other rankings is indirect: better facilities attract better students, and that ultimately raises rankings, Mr. Creamer said.
“There is nothing in there that says if you become more efficient, your ratings will go up. They will probably go down,” he said.
Of course, the problem is not the rating systems themselves, but the demand they serve. Students want to attend “good” colleges, and that doesn’t mean colleges that educate; it means colleges that attract particularly strong student bodies and faculties. Their preference is not irrational. “Good” colleges are prestigious, and being around well-prepared teachers and students is educational. But what causes prospective students and professors to flock to some schools and not others? Beautiful facilities help, as UVA, Yale, and Stanford have found over many decades. Lovely campuses are expensive, but lots of the best-prepared, highest-scoring prospective students can afford the price. They now come from wealthy backgrounds, in part because they benefit from escalating investment starting in infancy. Some of the most desirable students are not rich, but you can always set your full tuition costs high and use the margin to subsidize a substantial minority of non-wealthy students.
The results include social stratification and a lack of attention to actually educating students; you’re already successful campus if your admissions office brings you a high-scoring freshman class. Online and for-profit education is disrupting this model, but it will not threaten the high-end institutions, which sell prestige and network benefits. They also offer learning opportunities, but not efficiently. I continue to wonder whether there may be a niche for new institutions that sell membership in a genuine learning community without frills. I think you could offer a good liberal arts education for less than $10,000 if you didn’t worry about the “inordinately lavish” facilities described in today’s Times.