Jul 21, 2010

Lazy Rivers Trump Instructional Expenses

According to a report recently released by the Delta Cost Project, colleges and universities are increasingly more likely to spend money on recreational amenities such as lazy rivers and climbing walls than they are on expenses related to the instruction of students.

In the escalating amenities wars, the number of lazy rivers found on college campuses has zoomed into the double digits. Facilities like the east coast’s tallest climbing wall at the University of Maryland, Christopher Newport’s $55 million Ferguson Center for the Arts, or Boston University’s 180,000 square foot Gerald Tsai Jr. Fitness Center (and lazy river) are deemed critical in the recruitment of college-bound high school students. And these are just a few examples of the kinds of student pampering projects found on today’s campuses.

In its report entitled, “Trends in College Spending 1998-2008,” the Delta Cost Project confirmed what any frequent visitor to colleges already knows. Postsecondary institutions are spending increased amounts of money in nonacademic areas, such as public relations and student recruitment and on other more visible monuments such as state-of-the art gyms and student centers.

“This is the country-clubization of the American university,” said Richard K. Vedder, an Ohio University professor studying the economics of higher education, in the New York Times. “A lot of it is for great athletic centers and spectacular student union buildings.”

While tuition and average sending on instruction increased 22 percent from 1998 to 2008, at private research universities, spending on student services increased by 36 percent as did spending on institutional support, a category including general administration, legal services, and public relations.

At public research universities, spending for student services went up by 20 percent over the same time period, compared with 10 percent for instruction. Even community colleges, with far smaller overall budgets increased spending on student services by 9.5 percent, as opposed to 3.4 percent for instruction.

Over the past decade, undergraduate and graduate enrollments have grown to 18.6 million from 14.8 million in 1998. Average tuition rose by 45 percent at public research universities and about 21 percent at private research universities, enabling the average private university to spend an average of $35,000 per year per student as compared to $19,000 nationally and $8400 in other developed countries.

“The funding models we’ve created in higher ed are not sustainable,” said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Cost Project. “We ran up spending in the ‘90’s and early 2000s to levels we can’t maintain, and this is true not only in the elite privates, put in many of the public institutions, too.”

Could it be that we’ve seen the last of the lazy rivers? Not likely, as long as they continue to attract students and families willing to foot the bill.

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