Some of this critique is warranted. However, in a common theme that runs throughout popular portrayals of education issues in America, a major player in the amenities boom is missing in the conversation: the private sector. A whole range of companies are cashing in on the college student market, with little regard for how their products encourage frivolous spending and increase the price of attending college. You may say these costs do not matter because they are outside the tuition that students must pay. I would counter this thinking by arguing that: 1) many of the services offered by institutions that are condemned for costliness do not factor into tuition; and 2) with this in mind, we should always think about the price of attending college in broad terms, encompassing tuition, as well as fees, books, as well as discretionary spending.
One of the companies that is a major force in the higher education landscape (physically and figuratively) is American Campus Communities (ACC). You may not have heard of ACC, but you've likely seen their products if you've spent any time on a college campus recently. Launched in 1996 by a former resident assistant, ACC has developed $4.2 billion in properties and $4.6 billion student housing assets. They own and operate their own buildings off campus, but also work with colleges in public-private partnerships to manage or develop specified housing facilities. In 2004, they became the first publicly traded student housing real estate and investment trust (REIT). Their buildings grace the campuses of the University of New Mexico, Princeton University, Portland State University, Arizona State University, and the University of South Florida, to name a few examples.
|Vista del Sol Apartments in Tempe, AZ|
The double standards are less concerning than the presence of companies like ACC (there are many others) on campuses and the influence they exert. As privately constructed buildings infiltrate a university space, public or quasi-publicly-funded and operated buildings must change to keep pace. The amenities arms race, in other words, is not just a product of institutions competing with one another. It is also a product of competition created by companies like ACC building on and around campuses nationwide. Before long, luxury student housing becomes normalized, such that students and parents feel like it is the most acceptable option. A family could certainly look into less expensive options, but they fail to capture the imagination, communicate a sense of comfort, and convey status quite like a resort-esque apartment complex. And if so many others can afford it, they reason, so can we. The normalization of spending in higher education is not something that has been systematically studied, but there is reason to further explore the ways in which companies like ACC do not simply respond to consumer demand--they create demand where it previously did not exist.
|The Varsity, an ACC property down the street from my house in College Park, MD|