Thoughts on the Amenities Arms Race: A College Conundrum
College amenities have long been a topic of concern for college administrators as well as students and parents. What should college and university administrators know about such concerns as they examine policies and practices in their own institutions? Here are a few questions for academic leaders and some thoughts about possible answers:
Are more elegant amenities the best way to attract today’s new college students?
For those of us who were in college in the good old days of the 1960s, today’s emphasis on amenities—such as student activity centers, luxurious meeting spaces for students, several dining room options, climbing walls, fitness centers, and dorm rooms with big screen televisions—may seem more country club than college campus. But such amenities have been rapidly built since the turn of the new century and sold to college boards and administrators as the best way to attract students who seem more interested in luxury than learning.
Indeed, research studies tell us that colleges known for academic excellence are less likely to spend on amenities than on educational quality. For less selective colleges it is easier to construct new buildings than to improve academics, which takes longer and is less visible to parents and applicants. Some critics even accuse college presidents of having an “edifice complex.” Expanded athletic facilities may be a case in point. A 2015 study at the University of Michigan found that “lower-tier colleges have a greater incentive to focus on consumption amenities” because their applicants may care more about the “resort experience” and athletic facilities than academics.
But should attracting more students take precedence over improving academic quality?
That is an important question with no easy answer. Perhaps the obvious response is simply why choose? Colleges should do those things that both attract students (including amenities) and enhance their learning strategies and intellectual skills. Those who are on the academic side of the campus dynamic can make sure they advocate for faculty salaries that will attract the best available candidates while doing all in their power to strengthen the curriculum so that students will develop critical-thinking abilities and academic knowledge of the highest quality possible.
They can also do a better job of connecting and selling academics and career preparation to prospective students. Those on the student life side of the dynamic will no doubt continue to argue for the best possible amenities, athletics, and student services, as they should. Both sides will demand that presidents and boards take their needs and arguments seriously as they compete and cooperate in building effective college policies and practices. This is college politics 101!
What does the future look like for most institutions?
It appears that colleges are entering a new era in which declining student enrollments and rising costs are colliding—with implications for both students and colleges. It is well known that college tuition is rising twice as fast as the cost of living (7 percent versus 3.2 percent) with student debt now exceeding all credit card debt in the nation. Much of that tuition increase seems to result from administrative bloat (ouch!). And the challenge of student debt and college cost—at least some of which is created by the amenities race—is one reason college student enrollment numbers have been stagnant and even declining.
This situation has given rise to the surge in enrollments in less expensive and less luxurious two-year community colleges and the advent of even more online institutions: The University of Phoenix, one such online behemoth, enrolls more students than any other institution in the country. Prestige institutions—think the Ivy League—will continue to thrive in the years ahead, but state institutions and small liberal arts colleges in particular will face ongoing enrollment challenges that will require innovative thinking about both student services and academic programs. In a 2015 Odyssey article, Aiden Kocarek suggested, surely facetiously, the “5 Things Every College Campus Needs”: (1) moving walkways, (2) heated pavement, (3) massage chairs, (4) Starbucks vending machines, and (5) phone charging stations. That may be over the top on the amenities front (although phone charging stations may be a fine idea), but those of us from the 1960s college experience never dreamed there would be climbing walls or private bathrooms in residence halls!
A Final Thought
These three questions are central to how colleges and universities will debate directions in the challenging future. I am retired now from one of those fine small liberal arts colleges that are in the crosshairs of this conundrum, but be assured that I will continue to watch this dynamic play out as my colleagues look for the very best balance between great student services (including amenities) and a challenging academic program.
Thomas McDaniel is professor of education emeritus and a former administrator at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.