Higher ed arms race heats up
By Jenna A. Robinson
Testifying before the U.S. Senate in 2013, University of Wisconsin professor Sara Goldrick-Rab described college campuses as “glorified summer camps.” She said administrators were “engaging in an arms race to have the most impressive bells and whistles.”
In North Carolina, the push to make every campus amenity bigger, better and more impressive than the next has been on full display in recent years. N.C. State University has been especially intent on “keeping up with the Joneses.”
Harrelson Hall, the iconic round classroom building that watched over the Brickyard for half a century, has been demolished. Gone too are the last vestiges of the old Riddick Stadium, which hosted its final football game in 1965.
New or renovated classrooms, offices and student gathering spaces have replaced many old N.C. State landmarks. The Talley Student Union, which was recently renovated to the tune of $120 million, is one example. This megastructure, modern and attractive, is home to a 1,200-seat ballroom, art installations, and fireplace lounges. Its sleek meeting spaces host a vast array of programs and activities. It also provides students with nine high-quality dining options. Costs are being passed on to students in the form of increased fees.
N.C. State’s Physical Master Plan, released in 2014, outlines the university’s vision of “world-class facilities and surroundings.” It includes 17 key projects across the university’s 2,000-acre campus: “The built environment [will be] a source of pride for the community and measurably moves toward making N.C. State a better place,” says the university’s website. This “source of pride,” if realized, will also be a source of significant spending.
N.C. State is not alone in its belief that, in terms of construction, more and bigger equals better. Since 2005, High Point University, with around 4,500 students, has according to USA Today “poured some $700 million — with the majority financed by borrowing and student fees — into refurbishing and expanding its campus …”
The Connect NC bond, passed in 2016, will provide $980 million for state-of-the-art buildings at the UNC system’s 16 campuses.
So, what’s to be done about this amenities arms race? At the national level, Professor Goldrick-Rab has suggested the maximum amount that students can borrow should be lower. Allowing students to borrow large amounts of money, she says, enables colleges to overspend on amenities.
But public universities can — and should — do more. The UNC system can be a leader in this effort. The first step should be to improve its space utilization standards. At N.C. State, for example, non-education-related buildings account for more than 60 percent of campus. The system should also exercise more oversight over capital projects. Legislators and schools should work together to continue to keep tuition and fees low and to question more closely administrators’ claims about the “need” for trendy new building projects.
Such reforms would refocus higher education from accessories to essentials. If these issues are ignored, expect more debt and more questionable taxpayer spending in the future.
Jenna A. Robinson is president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.