The Corner

Culture

The College Arms Race on Amenities Rages On

A common notion on the Left is that higher education is being starved by stingy conservative legislators. (One recent book making that lament is Austerity Blues by Fabricant and Brier, who say that we must, as their subtitle puts it, fight “for the soul of public higher education.”)

The trouble with that thesis is that public colleges and universities have been spending copious amounts of money on things that don’t relate to education. They waste lots on sports and politically correct baubles like Offices of Diversity and Inclusion. They also blow huge amounts on the amenities arms race — that is, luxurious accommodations for students, many of whom are more interested in fun and comfort than in studying anything.

In this new Martin Center article, Jenna Robinson takes a look at the arms race, focusing especially on North Carolina State. “In this competition,” she writes, “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.”

NC State recently spent $120 million to renovate the Talley Student Union, which has fireplace lounges, a ballroom, art installations, and nine dining options for students. It also spent over $115 million on the ultramodern Hunt Library (named for long-time North Carolina governor Jim Hunt, who loved higher-ed spending and called the UNC system the engine driving the state’s economy), which has annual operating costs in excess of $4 million. State’s old library was somewhat dark and cramped, but if you needed a book or journal, you could get it and read it. Mere functionality isn’t good enough these days, however.

The university also has a master plan envisioning a host of “world class facilities.” All of that will supposedly be a “source of pride for the community,” but Robinson notes “this ’source of pride,’ if realized, will also be a source of significant future spending.”

Is there a solution to this mania for campus construction? Robinson argues that legislators need to question the claims administrators make that they “need” more space and amenities on campus and restore the focus in higher ed to education rather than accessories.

I agree, and if there are “students” who just aren’t interested unless a school has the most appealing campus with all the bells and whistles, maybe it would be best for them to have their college experience elsewhere.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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