By SARIKA AKULA, senior (Originally published March 2022)
ROOFTOP GARDENS. Putting greens. Valet parking. No, this isn’t your next vacation— it’s the academic future waiting for you at colleges like the University of Kentucky, the University of North Florida, and High Point University, respectively. In recent years, colleges have been competing in a veritable “amenities arms race,” designed to appeal to prospective students. Perhaps most infamously, in 2017, Louisiana State University (LSU) opened a 536-foot-long lazy river in the shape of the letters “LSU” as part of an $85 million renovation. This project was partially financed by student fees. To compare, the university’s Middleton Library is fitted with peeled wallpaper, stained carpets, and crumbling tile, according to LSU’s Manship Journalism Chair Robert Mann. This example is just one of many on college campuses recently. While all these amenities sound great, they come at the expense of students’ education and money. At a time when higher education costs are increasing, colleges should not be spending millions of dollars on luxurious projects.
For context, there is sometimes good rationale behind these investments. Most schools want to enhance the college experience by making their campuses more residential. Such campuses would make students more comfortable and want to spend time there, allowing them to connect with others, get to classes easily, and stay safe. Many older colleges continuously need building maintenance, and it makes sense to build new structures rather than upgrading old ones. Colleges might also use luxury as a way to attract prospective students. Brian Jacob, a researcher from the University of Michigan, noted that these amenities may attract students from wealthy backgrounds
that lack high academic achievement since they can contribute to the college financially. For less-selective schools, investing in these indulgences rather than academics can make attending the school more appealing. From a university perspective, one can see why the addition of certain facilities would make for a smart financial decision, especially if they also enhance students’ learning. It is fair for students to expect certain standards for their dorm rooms like air conditioning, a comfortable bed, or their own bathroom. However, there is a difference between updating old residential halls and maintaining quads, and installing 50-inch flat-screen TVs and shower speakers. The provisions that colleges choose to fund should improve the student’s learning experience and help them adjust to living on their own.
The price of attending college has skyrocketed in America: according to the College Board, tuition and fees at public 4-year institutions grew more than 60% over
the last 10 years. With student loan interests and loss of income included, the overall cost of a bachelor’s degree can be more than $400,000. The media has reported that campus amenities are one of the reasons, but there could be more. While in some cases, like LSU, students saw fee increases because of these projects, in other colleges, tuition was constant. College costs are growing for many reasons, such as less funding from states, and more people going to college. However, while these amenities are not the only reason for college costs increasing, they are still culpable, especially if colleges overestimate their predicted outcomes and end up overbuilding.
While these amenities do make the college experience better, prospective college students might say they would prefer college to be affordable rather than glamorous. These amenities are meant to be enjoyed by students, but if they are coming at the expense of financial burdens, they should not be constructed. At the end of the day, college is for specialized education, building on what you know, and preparing you for your next journey in life. More time should be spent on ensuring that students receive a quality education as opposed to a quality vacation.
In some cases, college luxuries can have the exact opposite effect on enhancing the college experience. At college, students are encouraged to engage with people from different backgrounds. Evidently, these opulent settings only stand to serve those who can pay for them. As tuition rates increase in America, colleges with luxurious amenities risk becoming playgrounds for children of the elite. Within college campuses, these different standards of living can create socioeconomic divides. Students who can afford to live in expensive dorms are not likely to come across students living in basic residence halls. This physical separation between low-income and wealthy students prevents students from meeting people of all backgrounds.
Even students are starting to protest against these projects. For example, at the University of Texas at San Antonio, students voted against a fee increase that would have been used to strengthen athletic facilities. Additionally, including students and faculty in the decision-making process when planning for new amenities will help in understanding what students truly need. Student task forces can also be set up to target improving campus infrastructure and facilities. In this way, colleges can directly address their students’ needs.
When they decide to attend college, most students are looking for three things: an education, a community, and a degree. It’s time that university investments reflect these ideals.