Bigger’s Better? In Higher Ed’s Amenities Arms Race, Bigger’s Just Bigger!

Testifying before the U.S. Senate in 2013, University of Wisconsin professor Sara Goldrick-Rab described college campuses as “glorified summer camps.” She said administrators were “engaging in an arms race to have the most impressive bells and whistles.”

That depiction may at first seem hyperbolic, but even a cursory glance at many of today’s college campuses reveals that the “arms race” described by Goldrick-Rab is real. Lush new dormitories, recreation facilities, student activity centers, libraries, and lecture halls now dot the collegiate landscape, embodying the idea that students must be appeased with upper-middle class comforts if universities are to vie for their tuition dollars.

In this competition, however, there are no real “winners,” except perhaps for construction companies and architects being paid to make every amenity bigger, better, and more impressive than the next. Recruiters can use stylish buildings and new playspaces to lure prospective students, but unwary taxpayers, parents, and student borrowers pay the price.

Emphasizing amenities over education also does a disservice to the faculty and students more interested in academic pursuits. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper found, perhaps not surprisingly, that demand for high-quality academics is limited to only the best and brightest students, while wealthy students with low academic aptitude have the strongest demand for recreational amenities. In such an environment, university leaders likely feel financial pressure to cater more to the lowest common denominator.

In North Carolina, such commercialization of higher education has been on full display in recent years. North Carolina State University has been especially intent on “keeping up with the Joneses.” The university has changed significantly in the past 15 years. Its enrollment has expanded. Its national reputation has improved. And its endowment is poised to crack $1 billion this year. But perhaps the most noticeable changes have come in the form of new campus construction and renovation.

Harrelson Hall, the iconic round classroom building that watched over the Brickyard for half a century, has been demolished. Gone too are the last vestiges of the old Riddick Stadium, which hosted its final football game in 1965. By 2000, only one set of concrete bleachers remained. Now those, too, have disappeared.

New classrooms, offices, and student gathering spaces have replaced many old NC State landmarks. To some extent, this makes sense. For example, few will lament the demolition of Harrelson Hall’s “low-hanging ceilings, pie-shaped classrooms, [and] confusing corridors.” But other changes seem to be overkill.

The Talley Student Union, which was recently renovated to the tune of $120 million, is one example. This megastructure, now modern and attractive, is home to a 1,200-seat ballroom, art installations, and fireplace lounges. Its sleek meeting spaces host a vast array of programs and activities. It also provides students with nine high-quality dining options. (Fifteen years ago there were three: Lil’ Dino’s, Taco Bell, and a hamburger place. None of them made the cut to be in the new Union.)

Students are footing the bill for the impressive new space. As Will Jakes reported in 2011 for the Martin Center, “An annual per-student fee of $290, which [students] will pay for the next 25 years, is being phased in over four years. The fee represents nearly a 40 percent increase over the 2009 student fees. (Tuition and fees have already gone up 27 percent since 2007 at NC State.)”

Other lavish projects on the university’s campus, however, have required or will require significant funding from state taxpayers. For example, the behemoth, ultramodern Hunt Library, which opened in 2013, cost the public $115.2 million, in addition to more than $4 million in annual operating costs.

And NC State’s Physical Master Plan, released in 2014, outlines the university’s vision of “world-class facilities and surroundings.” It includes 17 key projects across the university’s 2000-acre campus: “The built environment shall be of the highest quality, responding to campus and ecological contexts, and contributing to the traditions and missions of NC State University. Each project, however large or small, is a source of pride for the community and measurably moves toward making NC State a better place.” This “source of pride,” if realized, will also be a source of significant future spending.

The university’s quest for prestige has even moved off campus. NC State has purchased two off-campus properties north of its historic Bell Tower. The university, which has no immediate plans for the properties, says the purchases are “critical” for protecting and enhancing the campus’s “front door.”

Unfortunately, in North Carolina, NC State is not alone in its belief that, in terms of construction, more and bigger equals better. Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill have built their own impressive amenities. And High Point University, which enrolls just around 4,500 students, has since 2005 “poured some $700 million—with the majority financed by borrowing and student fees—into refurbishing and expanding its campus….” The Connect NC Bond, passed in 2016, will provide $980 million for state-of-the-art buildings (or renovations) at the University of North Carolina system’s 16 campuses.

Despite claims to the contrary, however, most of these universities don’t need more space or more construction. Take NC State as an example. Its own data show that, after housing is excluded, only 20 percent of campus space is allocated for instruction and study. Research takes up 17 percent of space. But support, office space, and other non-education-related spaces make up more than 60 percent of the campus!

Although the campus “arms race” is an old problem, its costs have now climbed to alarming proportions. NBER found that in 2007, the ratio of amenity to academic spending was 0.51 across four-year public and private non-profit schools. The problem often seems intractable. But there are national and local solutions that can help.

At the national level, Professor Goldrick-Rab has suggested that the maximum amount that students can borrow should be lower. Allowing students to borrow large amounts of money, she says, enables colleges to overspend on amenities. She suggests the federal government should focus on grants to low-income students instead.

At the local level, public universities and small schools can refocus to compete on price instead of pomp. To some extent, this shift has already begun.

But public universities can (and should) do more. The UNC system can be a leader in this effort. The first step should be to improve its space utilization standards, which we have written about here. The system should also exercise more oversight over capital projects. At the same time, legislators and schools should work together to continue to keep tuition and fees low, and to question more closely administrators’ claims about the “need” for trendy new building projects.

Together, such reforms will refocus higher education from accessories to essentials. If these issues are ignored, however, expect more university debt and more questionable taxpayer spending in the future.

(Editor’s note: Jenna A. Robinson is a NCSU alumna. She loved her alma mater before it got any bells and whistles.)

  • Don Thompson

    The Talley Center is funded through student fees, but it is arguably an extravagance.

    Tthe Hunt Library used funds raised by Gov. Hunt. The old library was over capacity, and the university has grown to over 30,000 students. It is a sorely needed improvement that facilitates education.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    There is another arms race that was started by Stanford University in 2003, CPPs, or “Corporate partnership programs” that SELL to the corporations access to undergraduate recruiting for tiered-menu plan pricing (12-24 options typically), for tens of thousands of dollars. It is a revenue stream for the schools.
    Corporations vie for placement in job fairs, recruiting, etc. It is very similar to IAPs — Industrial Affiliate Programs, which manage access to star-faculty and promising research.

    The corporate partnership program model is new, but no one knows if it will work for middle-tier schools, and it pits the commercialization focus AGAINST traditional career counseling, 1-1 meetings. Old career counselors are getting fired when they don’t buy in to the new regime. For example: https://joinhandshake.com/

    CPPs create a pipeline straight to THAT company, and locks out poorer schools, like HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) that don’t have the funding nor the star-power to attract corps.

    This is the latest iteration of the arms race in higher education — corporatization of job placement at career centers.

    PS. Let’s not forget that early Chautauqua’s actually WERE educational ‘summer camps’ for adults, and the organizational ancestor of junior colleges (John Vincent), normal schools, and later, the universities that eventually emerged from them. What matters most is mass appeal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chautauqua

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    I cannot stop myself from thinking about real estate, real estate values, and the devastating effect of the commercialization of the internet. For example, store-based retail sales which are at $12B, but were $19B before the internet. Cyberspace is conquering retail, and rendering real estate superfluous. Same thing for higher education. No one is mentioning that in this article.

  • surellin

    I work in a large midwestern university that replaced its student union a few years ago. Admittedly the old structure was 1950s bland and the new structure is beautiful, but there are nevertheless problems. The old union had much more space and seating for students and much more affordable food. The new union seems to suggest that it is there to please faculty and administration rather than undergraduates. The university seems to be gentrifying, without a commensurate increase in student income to pay for it.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      You know, I was thinking along the same lines, about gentrification, when I saw the graphic for this article. (BTW: excellent, thought-provoking illustrations — to whom do we give credit for the artwork that creates the initial “mood” for the pieces? Just wondering.)

      In any case, these palaces of higher learning convey wealth and prestige in ways unimagined in the past. They appear to be designed to make undergraduates believe and feel that they have a higher status — much higher status — than, in fact, they have. Same for the faculty and administration.

      If students are spending years of their lives in what Ivar Berg called “aging vats,” this is certainly one way to make the indenture to higher learning pass more easily. [Of course, there will be the headache in the morning for ‘over-doing it’ the night before (i.e., student loan debt).] But, as shown, this results in extravagant public expenditures.

      • Thanks! All the credit for selecting photos goes to Jesse Saffron, our managing editor. But I made the pie chart myself using info.gram.

  • DrOfnothing

    It is hypocrtical for JMC writers to demand that universities operate according to market forces on the one hand, and then criticize them for upgrading facilities to attract “consumers” on the other.

    Also, the pie-chart, while pretty, is in no way an accurate depiction of how much is _spent_ on various aspects of the physical plant. It is, therefore, quite deceptive. Lab space is incredibly expensive to build and maintain. Is it specialized, dedicated, and has to conform to a raft of safety and environmental regulations. Classroom space, too, especially given teaching technology, is disproportionately costly. Office space, by comparison, is cheap. Also, faculty office space doubles as teaching and advising space, for small group and individual tutorials as well as nearly continuous student meetings. So to claim that “only 20% of university space is allocated for teaching and instruction” is misleading. The real question should be resources, not space, and spend per student (which has gone down, thanks to the recession, the depredations of the GOP-controlled legislature, and relentless lobbying and packing of the BOG by Art Pope and his ilk).

    Lastly, physical plant wears out and becomes outdated over time. Crucial information excluded from this (to make a political point) was when the older facilities had been built.