In 2013, then-University of Wisconsin professor Sara Goldrick-Rab told U.S. senators that college administrators were “engaging in an arms race to have the most impressive bells and whistles.”
Goldrick-Rab, who would later go on to compare Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to Hitler, was right about the so-called “arms race,” writes Jenna Robinson, president of The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal:
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 her article, Robinson argues there’s no winners in this phenomenon. While she notes campus recruiters can use “stylish buildings and new playspaces” to their benefit, ultimately “unwary taxpayers, parents, and student borrowers pay the price.”
And for those still interested in universities tackling academics, they are losing out, according to Robinson:
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 delving into the campus arms race, Robinson uses her own alma mater, North Carolina State University, as an example. She says some changes at the campus “seem to be overkill.” She adds it’s students and taxpayers helping foot the bill for these extravagant additions, which may not be all that necessary:
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!
Robinson writes reforms can help “refocus higher education from accessories to essentials.”