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Fancy Dining, Dorms Not What’s Ailing Higher Education

I love stories like this one from the New York Times, about the ever more luxurious facilities certain college students enjoy. The story focuses on private complexes, like the Grove, in which residents enjoy “Friday pool parties with a D.J., free food and snow cones, spiked with rum for those of age.” Perhaps more troubling than the amenities themselves is the comment of one 19-year-old who was mulling a stay at the Grove: “It’s like a vacation, almost,” he said. “I’m not going to go to class — that’s how I look at it.”

Such stories have been making the rounds since at least 1996 when Mark Edmunson, in an excellent article for Harpers, complained that the University of Virginia was beginning to resemble a “retirement spread for the young.” More recently, Jeffrey Selingo has drawn attention to the lazy rivers and climbing walls that are increasingly part of the elite and even not-so-elite college experience. To be sure, the Times story focuses on private developers, rather than campus dorms, but it is part of a narrative that has something to it: colleges competing for good students, and especially good students who can pay full tuition, often sell themselves on bases quite apart from the rigor of their academic programs.

Still, one can get carried away, as Walter Russell Mead does in the wonderfully titled “College Students Live Like Kings, College Grads Like Paupers.” Mead observes that “private developers aren’t simply competing with one another. Public colleges, fueled by readily available student loan money, have built luxurious dorms to attract students from across the country.”

Mead singles out the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where students in one dorm can enjoy “salmon filet, lamb, or even shark.” He also describes high living at the less-well-known University of Cincinnati and Kennesaw State. He concludes this way: “College students today live a bit like Cinderella, though. With a little government fairy dust, they land in the lap of luxury, enjoying a four year ball. But once the clock strikes graduation, they’re immediately chained to a pumpkin of debt.” Mead implies that public universities are now spending irresponsibly and billings their students, who, when they graduate, are saddled with unsustainable loan debt. How well does this claim hold up?

With respect to Mead’s examples, the answer is not at all well. Neither the University of Michigan nor the University of Cincinnati are typical publics. The University of Michigan has the highest endowment among public universities, in the top ten of all colleges and universities. University of Cincinnati comes in at 75th. While one might wish these two universities did not spend their money on Disney dorms, they can well afford to do so without saddling their students with excessive debt. Of the three schools named, only the University of Michigan leaves its graduates with higher than average debt ($22,000 according to the College Scorecard). But it also leaves its students with much higher than average salaries ($51,300 according to payscale.com). A rule of thumb is that one should not borrow more than one will make in the first year out of college. None of the three colleges in question comes close to breaking it.

Kennesaw State, with its 40.6 percent six-year graduation rate, is a hard case, and their take on dorms could hardly be more out of touch with the times: “The old-fashioned dorm experience is not something students ever had to experience at KSU,” says Michael Sanseviro, university dean of student success (university dean of student success?). But spending on the dorms has not prevented Kennesaw from keeping its tuition and student loan indebtedness below average.

Lavish dorms make a good story and in a new era of price sensitivity, some colleges may do well to sell themselves, with apologies to Michigan State, as spartan enterprises, in which students accept fewer premium cable channels in return for a rigorous education. But such dorms do nothing to explain loan indebtedness. Indeed, as the Delta Cost Project argues, they do not explain rising tuition, especially at state universities, which have gone through a long period of defunding. The typical public university is expected to serve more and more first generation students with fewer state dollars. Perhaps they should be expected to do more with less, but (sorry sharks) if we are concerned about the future of higher education we cannot afford to pretend that high student loan indebtedness has much of anything to do with shark being served at the University of Michigan.



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