Colleges Pushing Amenities, Not Job Prospects to Applicants

The cost of college is soaring at the same time that the economic prospects of many of their graduates is stagnant, or worse. So what gives? How can colleges charge more for a product with declining returns on investment?

Well, colleges have put together a number of excuses over the years. They range from the anachronistic (“we’ve got to pay utility bills”), to puerile (“libraries are expensive”), to contradictory (“teachers are costly, and also…lazy, so we’ve got to hire more”), to the awkward (“promoting diversity costs money”), and most recently, to the self-defeating (“greedy students want more stuff.)” Liz Willen reported for Bloomberg:

Amenities such as climbing walls and massage rooms are recruitment tools to impress students and their parents, says Jean Rutherford Wall, director of college counseling at Tampa Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida.

“Colleges feel they must market the tangible products that are readily available to the student,” she says. “Fancy new dorms with suite configurations, the newest toys, airy student centers with Starbucks and science labs that are cutting edge. If they don’t have these things, it puts them at a disadvantage in the marketplace.”

Yes, apparently today’s colleges are less places of learning and more youth havens where weight rooms must be top-notch, dining halls must have sushi bars and designer sundae options, and classrooms must offer IMAX screens and Dolby surround sound. Price is apparently not a concern, nor is a student’s future career or earnings potential. So long as government-subsidized loans are available colleges apparently believe they need to only compete on amenities, not price or job prospects.

That became all the more apparent in a recent article for USA Today:

The well-being bandwagon is gaining traction across college campuses as administrators seek to demonstrate the value of college — and broaden the definition of success beyond employment rates and earnings. Well-being is so integral to George Mason University that it is included in the school’s 10-year strategic plan.

“If you think about what our goals are, we get people ready to have successful lives,” says president Angel Cabrera. “A part of that, but only a part, is to have skills and knowledge that can land students a good job. It is also our responsibility to make sure they have habits and behaviors and awareness about how to have a good life.”

The story was centered around a George Mason University event called “Spring into Well-Being” in which students wore bunny earns, hopped around, and handed out plastic eggs filled with inspirational messages.

There is no doubt that student well-being is important (we should all want young adults to be happy and healthy) the chief goal of colleges should be to make sure that students are equipped with the skills necessary to compete for a career. Being happy won’t pay for those student loan payments after graduation, but not paying them will surely contribute to your unhappiness.

To understand why just ask the 20 percent of people in their 20s and early 30s who are currently living with their parents. That’s nearly double the percentage from a decade ago. The New York Times’ Adam Davidson reports on the problems facing this group of young people:

The common explanation for the shift is that people born in the late 1980s and early 1990s came of age amid several unfortunate and overlapping economic trends. Those who graduated college as the housing market and financial system were imploding faced the highest debt burden of any graduating class in history. Nearly 45 percent of 25-year-olds, for instance, have outstanding loans, with an average debt above $20,000. (Kasinecz still has about $60,000 to go.) And more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, meaning they make substandard wages in jobs that don’t require a college degree. According to Lisa B. Kahn, an economist at Yale University, the negative impact of graduating into a recession never fully disappears. Even 20 years later, the people who graduated into the recession of the early ’80s were making substantially less money than people lucky enough to have graduated a few years afterward, when the economy was booming.

In other words, if colleges really want to instill a sense of long-term well-being in their students, perhaps that would be best achieved if they would focus more on reducing the burden of student loans, or increasing the percentage of their graduates with careers, rather than on the height of their climbing walls.