Jul 17, 2013

Are Climbing Walls worth the Price in College Recruitment

Baylor University Climbing Wall

The investments are breathtaking. 

Climbing walls in world-class athletic facilities, gourmet dining options, and luxurious residence halls supported by massive construction programs are changing the face and possibly altering the priorities of college campuses across the country.

And hoping to capitalize on the recruitment potential of all this investment, campus marketing machines produce materials and organize tours that feel more like travelogues than introductions to serious institutions of higher learning.

The paper’s authors, University of Michigan professors Brian Jacob, Brian McCall and Kevin Strange concluded that many colleges have much to gain by investing in amenities like student services and activities, athletics, and facilities.  But they concede that “higher achieving students” are more willing to pay for academic quality than their “less academically-oriented peers,” while wealthier students are more willing to pay for “consumption amenities” like fancy dorms and recreation centers.

No surprise there.  Students with money to spare don’t mind paying for resort living on campus.

But what about the other 98 percent?

It turns out that the competition over campus facilities may not be paying off in quite the ways colleges hope. 

In research conducted both before and after the economic downturn, economists Kevin Rask of Colorado College and Amanda Griffith of Wake Forest suggest that students are more interested in price and prestige than in amenities.

According to their findings, families that do and do not qualify for financial aid are equally concerned about cost and reputation.  The results show students have become less sensitive to both educational and non-educational amenities over time, but are becoming more sensitive in changes in reputation.

In other words, the higher education “arms race” to build bigger and better facilities has become less effective at attracting high-ability students, while the quest for prestige has become a more important factor in college choice over time.  From this perspective, prestige equates with quality—academic and other.

The authors conclude that financial resources would be better spent at efforts to enhance college reputation in national publications than in building higher and more challenging climbing walls.

That should be good news for US News.

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