Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Is There a College Amenities Arms Race? Moving from Rhetoric to Research

I recently had a conversation with a writer who was working on a piece related to the college amenities arms race. It was a good conversation, and I was grateful to be consulted because I’ve spent significant time thinking about transformations in the built environment of college campuses. I shared with the writer my issue with most writing on the college amenities arms race. All of the articles I have read assume that a college amenities arms race ever existed in the first place. Here’s the problem with this assumption. It’s exactly that--an assumption. We have little empirical evidence that there is a college amenities arms race and even less proof that it contributes significantly to rising costs or tuition prices. The absence of data-driven analysis and proper contextualization of amenities in higher education leads to blatant mischaracterization of the financial realities at most colleges and promotes misunderstanding of student services.

There is cottage industry built around writing on amenities in higher education, one that fixates on portraying colleges as flush with cash, overrun with greedy administrators, stuffed with unnecessary luxuries. I found at least a dozen popular media articles about the college amenities arms race. (Note: I have created a running list of these articles here.) When these articles speak of a college amenities arms race, they refer to the practice of strategically constructing increasingly expensive and luxurious buildings as part of an endless competition to recruit and retain students. For many observers, the proliferation of amenities is a pernicious plague responsible for a range of ills in higher education, from excessive administrative spending to soaring student loan debt. The worst of these articles could be fairly characterized as “click bait,” or an effort to lure uninformed readers with salacious headlines and images of students enjoying water slides and lobster dinners.  

Part of the difficulty in establishing the existence of a college amenities arms race is that there is no agreement around what constitutes an amenity in higher education. We typically think of amenities in the context of hotels or apartments. In this context, amenities are unique features and comforts, many of which are above and beyond those items consumers view as necessary. For example, a hotel would likely include on its list of amenities a full-service spa or fresh baked cookies, but probably would not list beds and lamps. Articles on the college amenities arms race commonly identify as amenities those features of campus that are unrelated to the academic enterprise, things like lazy rivers, climbing walls, and niche dining options. However, other articles point to new libraries and study spaces as amenities, which are decidedly academic in purpose. Moreover, there is a tendency to conflate any construction project that is new or expensive as an amenity. Using the hotel example above, this would be like calling a new Holiday Inn an amenity.

Even if there is agreement that a lazy river is an amenity in higher education, how much construction involving which amenities is enough to comprise an arms race? A college might receive a major goft to upgrade its recreation center, which is badly in need of repair. The new recreation center might include a lazy river. However, once the project is finished, the college may not upgrade the recreation center for another decade (or more), and it may not break ground on a project of such magnitude for several years. Part of the rationale in constructing the recreation center is that there was a donor willing to help pay the tab, and there’s no guarantee this donor will stick around forever. Is it accurate to say the college is actively engaged in an amenities arms race? In other words, the mere existence of what we might agree is an amenity on campus (i.e., the lazy river) does not necessarily provide evidence of participation in an arms race. This evidence requires a more detailed conceptualization of the role of amenities and the built environment in higher education’s competition.

Because there is no definition of amenities in higher education, it is difficult to measure the phenomenon. Sightlines, a facilities management firm, maintains the most comprehensive database on campus construction projects. Yet this database only includes 350 out of over 7,000 postsecondary institutions. Lacking accurate measures, we don’t know how widespread the college amenities arms race might be. Articles suggest that the amenities arms race is ubiquitous in higher education, yet they use as evidence the same small set of colleges (e.g., High Point University). To be sure, some of these institutions might be guilty of amenities arms racing. However, readers are made to believe that what’s true at these colleges is true of all colleges. We are comfortable accepting this improper generalization because we can point to an amenity or two we’ve seen at our alma mater or local campus. However, I argue that we should avoid this type of generalization and seek out data that allows us to more accurately capture the nature and scope of amenities arms racing.

A recurring claim in writing about the amenities arms race is that all these flat screen TVs and tanning beds are driving up college costs, which are subsequently passed onto students in the form of tuition. Many of the articles mention the college amenities arms race in the same breath as mounting student loan debt. In fact, we know surprisingly little about the effects of amenities-based competition in higher education. The Delta Cost Project explored the relationship between spending on facilities and tuition in a report appropriately titled “Climbing Walls and Climbing Tuitions”. The authors argued that only a small share of spending on facilities went to amenities. Their main conclusion was that “climbing walls are easy targets, maybe even fair game, but they aren’t what’s behind the rising price of college” (p. 4). But amenities can influence students’ college choice process. In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Labor Economics, Brian Jacob and colleagues found that academically middle-of-the-road and wealthy students were significantly more willing to pay for consumption amenities. Colleges that admit more of these students have incentive to respond to this preference by spending more on consumption amenities. It is worth noting, however, that neither study supports the existence of an amenities arms race or shows that it contributes to tuition or student loan debt.

The truth about amenities is likely far less interesting than the popular media thinks. The financial realities at many colleges do not cohere with images of resorts and country clubs that are so common in articles on the amenities arms race. More municipal golf course than country club, many colleges are struggling to stem regular cuts in state funding, avoid staff layoffs and furloughs, maintain or even increase enrollments, and pay for upkeep of existing facilities. New construction projects at these campuses, some of which may include amenities like those described above, may be more a function of necessity or opportunity than competitive strategy. For example, some colleges have constructed new dining halls because companies like Aramark are willing to foot the bill in exchange for exclusive food service contracts. Additionally, my research on student housing shows that many campuses constructed residence halls through public-private partnerships, which are similarly financed by a private company, in order to meet student demand and upgrade badly deteriorating facilities. These partnerships have been made all the more attractive in states where the legislature has prohibited using state funds to construct non-academic buildings. In other words, the money for these fancy, new buildings didn’t come from taxpayers or student tuition.

What many writers looking at the college amenities arms race fail to consider are the political-economic conditions that explain the increasingly fierce competition in which colleges are enmeshed. Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades demonstrated in their work on academic capitalism that as state support for higher education has waned, colleges have become embroiled in competition for other revenue sources, namely students who can pay tuition with minimal assistance, research grants and contracts, and private donations. Administrators have prioritized units that foster these revenue sources, which could result in greater supply of amenities. Blame for the existence of amenities is rarely directed at the external pressures to which colleges are responding. Rather, responsibility often falls on the shoulders of the nameless, faceless, greedy administrator who is siphoning money from instruction to pay for luxury residence halls. Although amenities on campus are certainly the result of decision-makers on campus, many of whom are administrators, there is no monocle-wielding monopoly man maniacally laughing as he transforms your campus into mini-Disney. Amenities are a reflection of the present moment and the competition into which colleges have been thrust to remain solvent.

One of the big losers in the conversation on amenities in higher education is student services, or student affairs. Student affairs is the part of college administration dedicated to student well-being and development out of the classroom. But this is a very narrow and simplistic view of student affairs, which is a key partner in students’ learning, development, retention, and graduation. Student affairs is often swept into critiques of the amenities arms race because student affairs professionals often work in or manage residence halls, recreation centers, student centers, and similar facilities. This promotes a significant misunderstanding of student services because it casts the work of student affairs professionals as little more than facilitating students’ leisure and pleasure. It strips student affairs professionals of their important role in student learning and development and instead paints them as glorified camp counselors and tour guides. Here’s an example to illustrate my point. More than one article on the amenities arms race includes high-ropes courses in their description of amenities. As a graduate student and higher education professional, I interacted frequently with my college's outdoor education center. The high-ropes course employed dozens of students, who participated in leadership development courses and experienced truly transformational growth. Countless of the college’s programs used the high-ropes course to help with community building efforts. Because summer camps utilized the high-ropes all through the summer, I would be surprised if this “amenity” didn’t generate net revenue. Is the high-ropes course an amenity? Maybe. But it was remarkably successful at developing students as leaders. That is the bread and butter of student services, which gets lost when we don’t apply nuance to our thinking and writing on amenities.

My point is not to necessarily defend amenities or suggest we ignore the role of amenities in higher education’s intensifying competition for students and money. As someone who pays close attention to amenities and other changes to the build environment of college, I’m honestly troubled by what I see on many campuses. Although I often find the narrative around college amenities in the popular media persuasive, I have forced myself to reject easy answers and ask deeper questions. Among these questions are how amenities influence the experience of low-income students and their ability to afford college. Some of my research has tackled this question, but it provides only a snapshot. Rather than read yet another article about lazy rivers and climbing walls, I’m calling on my higher education colleagues to help me conceptualize the role and effects of amenities in higher education finance and management. We need research, not rhetoric, to know for sure if there is a college amenities arms race and how it intersects with the major questions of access, affordability, and completion in higher education.