October 05, 2003

Living like a Student, 21st-Century Style

In the abstract, Kathy Anzivino believes there must be some pinnacle of amenities that universities simply cannot surpass, some outer limit so far beyond the hot tubs, waterfalls and pool slides she offers at the University of Houston that even the most pampered students will never demand it and the most recruitment-crazed colleges will never consent to put it on their grounds.

She just has a hard time picturing what that might be.

-- Greg Winter, "Jacuzzi U.? A Battle of Perks to Lure Students"

Via The Salt-Box, the above-linked NYTimes article suggests that universities are borrowing unprecedented amounts of money in order to build resort-like centers offering "amenities once unimaginable on college campuses."

The university as theme park? The following examples suggest that on some college campuses the process of disneyfication is well underway:

Ohio State University is spending $140 million to build what its peers enviously refer to as the Taj Mahal, a 657,000-square-foot complex featuring kayaks and canoes, indoor batting cages and ropes courses, massages and a climbing wall big enough for 50 students to scale simultaneously. On the drawing board at the University of Southern Mississippi are plans for a full-fledged water park, complete with water slides, a meandering river and something called a wet deck a flat, moving sheet of water so that students can lie back and stay cool while sunbathing.

I suppose luxury, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder:

'These are not frills,' said Daniel M. Fogel, president of the University of Vermont. 'They are absolute necessities."

The University of Vermont plans to spend up to $70 million on a new student center, a colossal complex with a pub, a ballroom, a theater, an artificial pond for wintertime skating and views of the mountains and Lake Champlain.

An artifical pond in Vermont of all places, must surely be considered a frill.

Do these examples represent isolated instances? Or do they rather illustrate a new trend? In either case, I think it's time we asked some tough questions about educational priorities and the allocation of scarce resources.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 5, 2003 10:31 AM

And about some of the philosophy underpinning them, too - Miss Manners has done some great screeds against the perils of trying to make the workplace substitute for family or home. Too many bosses get used to the fact that a lot of people can work excessively long hours for quite a while without ever stopping to assess whether they should. A friend of mine who retired from the programming biz a few years ago (no slouch, he's got his name on RFDs) comments that any business that needs a lot more than 40 hours a week from employees is understaffed and/or has work poorly assigned. I've often thought the same is true of grad school - rather than arrange things to make people more willing to put in 60 or 80 or 100 hours a week at it, put the money into arranging it so that they do have to.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh at October 5, 2003 01:34 PM

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal this summer about apartment shock -- what happens when, for instance, students leave swanky dorms to live in an apartment where there may be a cable connection in the wall but one must PAY for it to be turned on. The article began with an Emory student as an example, which shows that Emory must've spent a LOT of money since my days!

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at October 5, 2003 02:29 PM

That does it - I'm moving back to the 12th century, when teachers hung out in the street and students showed up to listen to them.
*goes to basement, fires up steam-powered time machine*

Posted by: language hat at October 5, 2003 04:35 PM

One of these days I'll write my piece on "The Functions of the College Education in a Pluralistic Society". As a friend of mine (U. of Oregon) explained to me, one of the functions is "The Four Year Party".

Grumpy Old Man, call your office.

Posted by: Zizka at October 5, 2003 05:35 PM

This is interesting in the context of Stanley Fish's recent article on how *impossible* it is for universities to cut their expenses. (I have a rant on the article at my blog if anyone's interested..)

Posted by: David Foster at October 5, 2003 07:25 PM

Hmmph. In my day our student pub was a skanky basement room with no windows, the main gym was smaller than the main library (and we had more libraries than gyms), we tromped through the snow at 8:30 in the morning to go to class, and we liked it. Well, okay, we didn't really like it, and we complained about having nowhere to eat except for a handful of mediocre Thai restaurants, but did we demand water slides and climbing walls? Nooooo. We demanded functioning copiers and more frequent bus service.

I'm turning into one of those "In my day..." curmudgeons, and I'm not even quite thirty. How long has this trend been going on? Is it very recent, or has it been around for a while and it just hasn't been much remarked? Because I'm starting to feel prematurely aged thinking about all the perks that kids these days take for granted.

Posted by: Amanda at October 5, 2003 11:33 PM

I'm really glad you wrote that, Amanda, because I remember the same thing at Hoity-toity Private Midwestern U., and I've not been out of college ten years.

I wonder if, apropos of Bruce's comment above, colleges are trying to position themselves as stand-ins (stands-in?) for "the real world" our students are so vocal about wanting to join: health clubs, vacations, an ersatz existence until the real one comes along.

Posted by: Chris at October 5, 2003 11:56 PM

I must be at the wrong university! We are thrilled to have a working air-hockey table in the basement. Water slides? I'd settle for having more than one drain per six shower heads, and a hook for my towel that was less than ten feet away.

Posted by: Jane at October 6, 2003 12:18 AM

Wow. Why can't *I* go to a school with a water park? I like water parks just as much as anyone in Mississippi, and I like massages more than anyone in Ohio.

Who needs things like adequate salaries for TAs? Who cares about repairing buildings that are barely standing?

My school does not have these amenities -- it has nice gyms, but they're not THAT wonderful. My undergrad school had less. It never would have occurred to me to want these from the school.

Until now, because even though I think it's a huge waste of money and a failure of priorities I am very very jealous.

Posted by: wolfangel at October 6, 2003 01:03 AM

Yes . . . just another sad testament to the fact that universities aren't about education any more.

Academy Girl

Posted by: Academy Girl at October 6, 2003 02:40 AM

This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard of a state school doing, and I went did my undergrad at a school infamous for the most unbelieveable things one can think of. In a time when Texas orders the entire state government to cut expenses by 7%, when California is tens of billions in the red, and when the other 48 states are in dire financial straights as well, these schools need a wake-up call from their legislatures. They exist, not to compete with the Ivy League, or even with other state schools, but to educate the people of a state. This is clearly a breach of duty in that mission.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at October 6, 2003 03:40 AM

I live down the street from a Big 10 University. In an effort to "revitalize downtown," a developer built a set of some ten or a dozen quarter-million-dollar condos across the street from campus. There's trouble now because many of them were purchased by parents for their kids to live in while they're in school, and other residents who thought they were buying into a sophisticated, upscale, urban lifestyle are dealing instead with weekend parties at a million decibels and vomit in the elevetors. And we're not even one of the fancy Big 10 schools; we're one of those "other" Big 10 schools. We've been treated to lots of coverage in the local paper in which students assert that just because they're students doesn't mean they should have to live like students.

I hate to fnd myself saying, "In my day, we lived four to a tiny concrete-walled room, and we liked it." But we did. I worry about how these young people will make the transition to adulthood; I always felt like my four years in student digs helped me adjust my expectations so that when I got out and started earning entry-level wages, it wasn't too much of a shock to my system compared to the lifestyle I'd enjoyed at Mom & Dad's. Some of my frends had a lot of trouble making that transition, and came close to bankruptcy before they figured out that they couldn't keep living like the household income was in the six digits if they were only earning $25,000/year. How do kids whose parents and schools are helping them to continue to feel entitled to their parents' standard of living make the transition?

Posted by: Su at October 6, 2003 08:41 AM

Are we still wondering why tuition is spiraling? It's the students who select schools based on such amenities, and it's they who pay for it. Except, that is, for the students who get government grants, loans, or work-study money - and that includes nearly all students (including all students at state colleges). For these students, the amenities get factored into their financial need.

I don't have anything against colleges offering health centers and apartment complexes, but these things should be offered to students as optional services, and the services should be financially viable based on these fees alone. The costs shouldn't count toward students' financial need according to the federal formula.

People may look at how only some students take advantage of such amenities, and they bemoan how this reveals class divisions. But the current approach - where we force students to pay for an upper-class lifestyle - is actually least fair to students from lower-class families.

Posted by: matins at October 6, 2003 09:27 AM

One thing to keep in mind -- and this is intended by no means as a justification for the campus amusement park, but simply as one potential explanation for how such things could occur -- is the vagaries of big donor gifts. It is not unheard of for well-heeled alumni to decide that a campus "needs" something that boggles the mind. I can envision a scenario in which a super-athletic alum of University X donates a climbing wall, and then a similarly athletic (and perhaps business-competitor) alum of University Y decides that his alma mater is not to be outdone, and so donates the climbing wall AND the whitewater rafting course, and thus the escalation begins.

Aside from that, an odd bit of irony: Dan Fogel was the chair of the department that I did my undergraduate and masters work in, and was later the dean of that graduate school. I never quite realized how he must have been suffering for want of an artificial skating pond. And here I thought that the way the phones kept getting turned off and the copier paper kept running out was a larger problem.

Posted by: KF at October 6, 2003 10:13 AM

I take your point that sometimes some of this can be attributed to the whims and vagaries of big donors. In the examples cited in this article, however, the universities are borrowing the money:

To finance the boom, universities are borrowing money at an escalating pace. According to Moody's Investors Service, public and private universities issued $12 billion worth of bonds in the first three quarters of 2003, a 22 percent increase from last year and almost three times as much as in the same period in 2000.

The vast majority of that borrowing has been for construction, Moody's said, and while some of the surge reflects a desire to refinance earlier projects at better interest rates, most of it stems from the current transformation of the nation's campuses. Though that includes classrooms and research buildings, Moody's said, the blitz of new student unions, dormitories, recreational centers and their related perks is 'probably the No. 1 driver' of the trend.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 6, 2003 10:33 AM

I graduated 10 years ago from one of the most expensive private colleges in the U.S.; there even the nicest dorms had small drafty rooms with radiators that banged so loudly they could have been mistaken for the Beastie Boys rehearsing next door. Almost no one had a car. A midnight snack was, more often than not, a bagel smuggled from the dining hall. Almost no one had enough money to go anywhere but home for spring break. Our computer lab had 20 computers for the entire small campus - you often had to wait in line or wake up early to get one. No email until the year I graduated.

Fast forward two years and I'm in graduate school at a huge Southern public university. The faculty parking lot has the same assortment of old Toyotas and Volkswagons (their older and grungier cousins are in the graduate lot) - but the undergraduate lot is filled with Lexus and Mercedes SUVs, brand new Jettas and pick-up trucks. The students wear A&F instead of vintage jeans from Salvation Army, have cable or satelite television, a dedicated T1 line, a $3000 computer, blow hundreds of dollars during football season on tailgate parties, and go to Cancun for two weeks with their friends in the spring.

I was tempted to resort to thoughts such as 'kids these days', but the fact was that I was only two years older. These kids came from just as much money as the kids I went to private school with, but both the kids and their parents seemed to have different priorities for the money they wanted to spend on their children. I strongly suspect that Ohio State U. has a similar demographic of kids and parents concerns - more worried that their child will join a good sorority and a good-paying business/engineering job when they graduate then whether their children are reading Proust or their professors are earning a living wage (I mean, professors don't really work, do they - just teach a couple of classes once or twice a week, right?).

Posted by: Matilde at October 6, 2003 11:03 AM

Kids today. When I was a boy, all we had for entertainment was a dime bag and a few Hendrix and Doors albums, all of which we had to buy ourselves, and we **liked** it.

Posted by: Zizka at October 6, 2003 11:21 AM

As schools become more and more oriented to taking a customer service approach, is it any wonder that things like this go on? Elite schools want to attract upper middle class and wealthy students. Struggling and "least competitive" schools want to attract any students they can.

We can wince all we want, but administrators will pay far more attention to people who do bring in revenue - parents. Can we blame them? If the deans and the marketing people think a theme park will raise enrollment and retention rates, then expect them to send in the rollercoasters.

Could TAs and adjuncts take advantage of this? Perhaps there should be a traveling carnival staffed entirely by adjuncts and TAs, with special "academic" rides and games? Throwing darts at CVs for prizes? How about the dreaded "Cattle Call" ride (sponsored by the American Historical Association)? A crowd of unsuspecting riders are forced to fight for a tiny number of seats for a rollercoaster. For the few that get on, many are ejected from the ride by a spring mechanism along the way and there are no belts to keep them in. Imagine a whole Western motif to it.

Posted by: better left nameless at October 6, 2003 12:04 PM

When a person is ejected, a Burl Ives mechanical voice yells out, "You're history, partner!"

Posted by: better left nameless at October 6, 2003 12:13 PM

As for trends, I was in college from 1985 to 1987 (at which point health problems intervened), and I recall some of the senior RAs saying that their informal poll of students' gear showed sharply escalating averages each of those years. The arrival of the CD is one contributing factor; the arrival of the affordable personal computer is another. I suspect that both of those fed general expectations of having current gear on all fronts, but the trend seems to (at least at my college) have been in place before that.

Purely as a personal data point, I add myself to the list of "I had a pretty spartan room with very basic amenities, with the only luxuries being a decent low-end stereo and the non-academic books and comics" folks. And yeah, I agree that learning how to live that way was a big help in dealing with post-college circumstances.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh at October 6, 2003 01:17 PM

You guys need to look in that article at what the institutions in question are, because I think it's significant. As one administrator in the story comments (paraphrasing from memory here), "Harvard can put its students on pallets of straw and serve them gruel if they want, and it won't make any difference to the students they get".

The schools in the article, on the other hand, clearly see themselves locked into a competition for a pool of students where they cannot woo them strictly through reputation capital. The schools mentioned are either public institutions (a few the main campus of a state system, others the secondary campuses of those systems) or lower-tier private universities.

What I think is interesting is that this represents an apparent confession on the part of these institutions that they either a) cannot envision how to spend the same monies to improve their reputation capital over their direct competitors; b) think that building these amenities will be cheaper than improving their reputation capital while achieving the same competitive dividends or c) don't *want* to improve their reputation capital for fear of losing the students that they presently get while not drawing a new constituency (e.g., the students they're seeking wouldn't be drawn by reputation capital no matter what).

I think a) is part of it: improving your reputation capital is a murky, difficult business, as well as involving a lot of lead time.

I suspect that b) is a big part of it too. The expenses of a 62-person jacuzzi or a five-story climbing wall seem pretty considerable until you stack them up against the expensive of recruiting thirty tenured "world-class faculty" with sufficient reputations to change your status in the academic pecking order. If I was an administrator with a perceived competitive disadvantage, I might choose the decked-out student center over the investment in faculty and curricular development, too. The student center has fewer risks and is ultimately cheaper in the short AND long-term.

C) is a big part of it as well. I'm remined of the hapless President Lawrence's attempts to make Rutgers University a football power. You can invest enough in football--or academic reputation--to take you out of the division you used to play in. But all that might accomplish is to make you the permanent bottom-feeder on the next tier up. A state system could decide to dump a ton of money into faculty and curriculum and still not achieve the reputation of Michigan or Berkeley, because those reputations are the composite product of several decades of investment and effort and are now complicatedly self-sustaining. A private research university could go all out to try and be "like the Ivies" and find that the reputations of the Ivy League are more or less invulnerable and have nothing to do with what they actually do or offer, and that you can never get enough bang for your buck in chasing that goal. You could actually end up losing the race both for students in your former marketplace AND in the marketplace you're striving for.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at October 6, 2003 03:56 PM

"When I was a boy, all we had for entertainment was a dime bag and a few Hendrix and Doors albums, all of which we had to buy ourselves, and we **liked** it."

Buy the albums? We liberated them;-)

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 6, 2003 09:34 PM

"As one administrator in the story comments (paraphrasing from memory here), 'Harvard can put its students on pallets of straw and serve them gruel if they want, and it won't make any difference to the students they get'."

Yes, this is significant. And at a certain point, there is probably a kind of reverse snobbism that kicks in at the elite schools: we don't do water parks and state-of-the-art residence halls because that's for wannabes and we're the genuine article.

No question that the schools treated in this article see themselves as engaged in a real competition for "reputation capital." And I'm going to assume that recruiting 30 tenured star faculty is just not a serious option for a place like the University of Southern Mississippi. Which leaves shiny new buildings and facilities as the easiest and perhaps also the cheapest (though I'm not so sure about this) option. But it's not the only possible option. And in terms of the state schools, at least, I think there should be a real public conversation about the goals and priorities of these publicly funded institutions.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 6, 2003 09:56 PM

"Ohio State University is spending $140 million to build what its peers enviously refer to as the Taj Mahal, a 657,000-square-foot complex featuring kayaks and canoes, indoor batting cages and ropes courses, massages and a climbing wall big enough for 50 students to scale simultaneously."

While that seems like a lot. You must put some perspective to it. Ohio State has 50,000 students on the Columbus campus, together with 20,000 employees. The budget line item that contains this operation "Auxiliaries (residence halls, Athletics, etc.)" runs a surplus, in part because of the enormous revenues produced by the Athletic Department.

Given the cost of athletic facilities in a non-academic setting, a facility of this scope is bound to cost a lot of money. ut even if it is expensive it is not part of the Instructional costs budget item, which is where Ohio State, luike most universities is losing money.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 6, 2003 11:36 PM


Two weeks ago we moved both daughters into their dorms (separate) at Northwestern. One dorm dated from the late 1950's and one from the early '70's. Both were bare masonry. In one, I am sure the width (or rather narowness) of the halls does not meet fire codes. I don't think either one would be described as nice, let alone plush.

I gave them a car (1999 Mercury FMV $6500), because the older has an off campus internship 3 days a week. I do not see the dorms and facilities or student cars as being part of the cost equation.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 6, 2003 11:44 PM

I think your daughters' spartan dorms support Tim Burke's point: Northwestern already has loads of reputation capital, so doesn't need to invest in the same way.
Also, it must be much more difficult for urban schools to build "taj mahals," and in any case, there would surely be less pressure/demand in a major city where students have easy access to just about anything and everything (arts, sports, entertainment, etc).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 6, 2003 11:55 PM

Robert...I don't think I buy the budgeting argument. If the "auxiliaries" line item runs a surplus, why not simply use this surplus to fund the "instructional costs" line item? Surely there isn't any legislation that requires monies generated by "auxiliaries" to be spent internal to this function, like the Highway Trust Fund..if there is, it is terrible policy and should be repealed immediately.

Posted by: David Foster at October 7, 2003 12:08 AM

This is all very very interesting. I was also a student in the mid-'80s (like at least one other poster here) and, let's just say, I'm glad I went when I did. Things were indeed spartan by comparison back then. (We didn't even have phones in the dorm rooms!) I agree w/ a previous poster that learning to make do w/ less prepares you well for what's to come.

There's an odd twofold problem here. Bigger, public schools are handing "taj mahals" to students on a silver platter. Though - I admit - my small liberal arts school did create a very nice student center during my time there, it would hardly be in the league of what's discussed now. (e.g., no free massages, no water slides). At any rate, "back in the day" we learned to "create our own luck". Since there was so much that was NOT handed to us on a silver platter we, heaven forbid, often found ourselves picking and choosing our (very productive) diversions on our own. To this end - as I'm sitting here thinking about this - we had a wide range of extracurricular activities that appealed to a wide range of tastes. In other words, if you got bored there, it was because you were just plain unmotivated or lazy to do otherwise.

The other side of the coin points to another, equally appalling, extreme. The "elite" institutions (e.g., ivy league) often have enough of "reputation capital" that they feel somewhat ABOVE providing more of the types of amenities to students that would allow them to live more comfortable and diverse student lives. And I'm not talking about water slides; I'm talking about basic things such as livable dorms w/ heating systems updated since the 19th century, and decent gyms (not crumbling stalinesque monuments to faded glory and consciously appropriated decay) where ALL students have the opportunity to pursue healthy fitness regimens (of even the most basic type).

So - w/ all those words out of the way - the problem seems to be that most institutions, depending on their existing "reputation capital" tend to either one of two extremes. Indeed, does anyone know of any campus anywhere that admirably treads a path down the middle?

Posted by: Anon at October 7, 2003 10:22 AM

IA: Well that's a theory. I am not sure how you would support it. I know that despite the athletic facility, Ohio State has not invested much in Dorms for the past generation. I think they have built one (this year, for Med Students, I think) in the past 25 years or so. This compares to a lot of classroom, research and athletic building.

David: To the extent that the auxiliaries line item runs a surplus it comes from one of 2 places. The first is from fees charged to students for living in Dorms and eating Dorm food. As near as I can make out it would be like rubbing salt in a wound to have those fees subsidize educational costs. The second source would be the athletic operations, particularly football and men's basketball. Given the politics of the situation and the fragility of that revenue (you do not win a National Championship every year), the university is doing very well to not have to subsidize non revenue sports and getting the Athletic Department to spring for facilities that will let the general student body and staff share in the wealth. Furthermore the surplus was $9 million, which is less than 1% of the Billion $ instructional budget.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 7, 2003 10:32 AM

If the surplus was $9 million, they are going to have a very hard time paying for a $140MM recreational center out of it. If they can issue tax-exempt bonds for the project, at an interest rate of 4%, that represents $5.6MM/year in interest costs alone. Of the remaining $3.4MM/year, most will probably be eaten up in maintenance and repairs for the facility. Maybe $2MM would be available to retire the principal of the debt, which comes to 70 years in order to pay this thing off...

Posted by: David Foster at October 7, 2003 11:29 AM


I doubt very seriously that they are planning to fund this whole thing out of that one source. They may have funds from the legislature. They often do not begin these projects until they have secured major private donations. Further, fees from 50,000 students add up very quickly. $25 a quarter would produce $1.25 million a quarter.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 7, 2003 10:27 PM

Tuesday's "Talk of the Nation" NPR show(second hour)is focusing on the market in students, taking off from the New York Times article. It's a good venue to continue this conversation in public.

Posted by: Matthew at October 13, 2003 10:13 PM