Thursday, May 01, 2008


Vent to the Administrator: College as Playground

A new correspondent writes:

I've been a faithful reader for a while now... an issue has been brought to my attention recently regarding my alma mater.

Five years ago, I decided on a small liberal arts school in the South; the price was reasonable - $19,500, and most students received a great financial aid package. I had a blast while attending said university, and influenced my sister's college decision process in so doing. In the middle of my sophomore year, we had a drastic change in the form of a new president, who brought in a good deal of money to the school, which of course led to new facilities on campus.

Quietly, he focused on increasing enrollment - the tentative number for 2008-09 school year is around 1,000 new freshman (more than double my freshman class). When taking the role of university president, I also recall him stating that he wouldn't drastically increase the size of the student body; he seems to have done so. There hasn't been a drastic push for new faculty to cover all of the new students; some adjuncts have been brought in to cover the basic courses, and a few new professors added here and there. It's not the school I fell in love with during my campus tours by any stretch of the imagination.

She still has two years left at Small Town U. The cost for the 2008-2009 school year? $31,000. I'm really not sure that my sister will be able to afford the school; this year she barely received enough in scholarships/loans to cover last year's increase (this year, tuition will jump from approximately $28,000 to $31,000).

They don't itemize room and board, tuition, and general fees anymore; instead they have started charging what they refer to as the "Comprehensive Fee." On the website, it states, "The Comprehensive Fee will cover everything (except books and specific course fees) with no additional charge for fitness center, laundry facilities, kiosks, campus concierge, concerts, nationally known speakers, athletics, technology, tutoring, parking, and so much more."

When reading about what the comprehensive fee covers, did you notice the bit about the campus concierge? This person is employed by the university to act as a hotel concierge would. I think this tidbit demonstrates the type of student the university is attempting to draw...

Is it just me or does the $11,500 price increase over five years seem a bit ridiculous? Are there many colleges with a "comprehensive fee"? In my brief search, it seemed that the comprehensive fee did not cover such items as tuition and room and board so much as it covered the odds and ends.

Aside from the memories I made and the stellar professors still at the university, I am ashamed of the playground my alma mater is becoming.

Concierge service? Wow.

Glad to see the taxpayer-funded financial aid system is being put to good use...

In a frustrating way, the new President is actually being rational. For private higher ed, the real story is the hollowing out of the middle ranks. Private tuition is high enough now that the nothing-special private colleges have a hard time justifying their existence, since you can get a nothing-special degree at a public college for much less money. So they really have a choice: either carve out a special niche, or bleed money. (Competing on the low end doesn't make much sense, given that you're up against institutions that receive public subsidies.) And the easiest and most fun niche to carve out is at the top.

Other possible niches include cultural/political/religious specificity (like Bob Jones University), program specialization (i.e. Alfred University for ceramics), 'sports factory' status (Gonzaga has recently achieved this), party school, and the like. A high-ish tuition college without a clear identity simply can't compete with the publics.

Concierge service is easier to start up than, say, a reputation for academic excellence. If you can't easily move into the ranks of the Yales of the world, you can appeal to the very wealthy by offering amenities that others don't. (Founders College is trying the upscale-proprietary approach, which strikes me as an obvious niche. Though it also has a vague ideological overtone that may or may not work with its intended market.) You might find the niche your alma mater has chosen to be asinine, and you may well be right, but the idea of picking a niche makes sense.

The 'nothing special private college' is going the way of the variety show, and for the same reason. Variety shows made sense when you only had three or four channels to choose from. But with hundreds of channels, there's no reason to sit through a cheesy musical number to wait for the comedy. The little private colleges made sense when the market was mostly local. But with increasingly aggressive advertising, the rise of online instruction, and the disproportionate increase in tuition over the years, they're really up against it. For my money, the elite institutions and the community colleges are the best situated, since they both have clear reasons to exist. The places in-between need to start making some choices. A concierge is a kind of choice, even if it's not the one I would have made.

I'm still not convinced that my tax dollars should go for aid to pay a concierge, though.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'm imagining the job ad for the concierge. "Requires bachelor's degree in Retail and Hospitality Sciences, preferably with a masters in Higher Education Administration."
Where did the additional students come from? Find the schools that lost out and count the days until they begin their own concierge service.

The increases in college costs will continue to outstrip inflation as long as students choose schools based on the latest and greatest facilities and services.

Ass. Dean
With regard to the letter writer, I agree that the institution isn't the one you attended. I think the best thing to do is accept that things have changed, treasure the opportunities you had, and decline to recommend the school.

For what it's worth, I agree with the President's approach; the previous model was not tenable, and the institution would almost certainly have eventually collapsed.
The big state school where I go recently got a new state-of-the-art recreation facility complete with waterslides and a "water volcano" and next year will re-open another recreation facility that will have a 3-story rock-wall among other amenities. Meanwhile, the music ed. department is housed in a dilapidated former apartment building and other academic buildings are falling into disrepair....
I second the letter writer's frustration. My own school is currently undergoing a massive project to improve campus aesthetics with funds that could have been better spent on books for our library or any number of academic programs. It is a shame, but the prettier they look, the more applicants they get, and thus more attention from all of those services that rank universities.

Funny how students are always criticized for their capitalistic views on education (the "we are paying for a service from our professors" attitude), and yet we just have to suck it up and take it when the administration acts with only profit in mind. :/
My institution, a small private college, is trying to decide on a niche for marketing itself in the near future given precisely the pressures identified by CC Dean. We're not elite and we can't compete well price-wise with the publics and CCs.

So far we are looking at "sustainability" as our niche, but several faculty have commented that this is hardly a mark of distinction now among small privates. We need to decide and move forward lest we start bleeding money, but making that leap of faith into a niche market is scary and requires deliberation.

I'm glad we're not yet a playground, but the forces pushing us in that direction are strong.
I am not quite sure what the problem is here. It looks to me like High Point University is investing on not just the "playground" things, but also is investing in the academic activities of the University. From the President's page

To grow our rigorous academic with new facilities, expanded faculty, and national recognition. To enhance the student life experience with new residence halls, state-of-the-art student center, athletic complex, plus music, greek life ... the works! To brand High Point University nationally and internationally (new website, national public relations, area awareness campaign, HPU Press, etc.).

It seems like the University is growing. Not quite sure how, or why, that is a bad thing.

And honestly, if the University of Illinois wants to invest in fitness opportunities for their students, how can that be bad? My suspicion is that the music program just isn't quite bringing in the enrollment numbers that a fitness center (and other majors) seems to. Just a guess.
As an aside: "They don't itemize room and board"?! That was how I personally saved probably thousands of dollars in college (and thus, in student loans); I skipped the dorm "experience" in favor of cheap rental housing in nearby neighborhoods. (Except for the required freshman year. Also, I wanted to live with my non-student boyfriend.)


Yeah, your alma mater isn't the school you went to. Mine isn't either; I think I was there during the painful transition period. My alma mater sold its law school, which was a huge disruption in town, as well as among alums. Bleh. Plus the administration kept describing the school with what became a laugh line among my group of friends: "The Harvard of the West." (And no, I didn't go to Stanford.)

But I fear DD is right about the economics of the thing, FWIW.
I wasn't saying that the growth of the university was a bad thing, per se. I can see the rationale behind the changes being made; the surface changes are often the easiest to make at first. The improving of academics is a far more arduous task and often takes years to accomplish.

The best facets of my educational experience were the small classes and the faculty-student contact; it's much more difficult to have insightful discussion in larger classes, as we are all aware.

I've heard multiple complaints from my friends still at the university concerning the superficial nature that the changes are currently taking. It's diluting their experience, as they see the red carpet being rolled out for the freshmen (and those high school juniors and seniors visiting campus) and they're very resentful of the ever-increasing costs of attending the university.

I've heard a few rumors of the impending troubles surrounding the procurement of student loans. Will this affect enrollment at private universities everywhere?

To respond to Elaine, we've also heard the school referred to as the new "Harvard of the South" by the administration as well. I'd love for it to happen. I just doubt that Harvard has a concierge. Or snack kiosks.
Elaine and Anon: Those marketing slogans make me laugh. I went to the purported "Harvard of Long Island." Thank god they abandoned that marketing campaign.
This rather reminds me of Rice. Though frankly, a lot of the concerns that are made like this are parochial, and from my perspective, irrelevant to the future of the university. When the new president summarily fired the most beloved (by the undergrads) administrator on campus, there was uproar; essentially no students are left who even know who he was.

These concerns, when voiced by undergrad alumni, are focused essentially on keeping the undergrad life the same as it was. Hell, in the history of the school we've had Board of Trustee members who tried to do that. But that just doesn't work. Ignoring reality is good and nice if you've got the money to maintain things unchanged indefinitely, and a student population that's willing to go with the deal (in the cases where students are children of influential donors, Board of Trustee members, etc). There are few schools with more money than Rice, but even there these conditions aren't in place.

And, of course, it depends on the student body and the sources of funding for the particular school as well. Rice is rich, yes. Why? A healthy endowment for the first 50 years or so, then government dalliances leading to oil money, timber money, research grants, etc. Not tuition, nor the cares of students in their daily grind -- basically, Rice was used to solve someone's tax problems at about the same time as the Cold War opened the scientific/technical spending spigot. Things that aren't going to happen again.

Hell, even the care of the cheap labor (we grad students, we 40% of the student body) is irrelevant. It causes no end of consternation to the undergrads when they realize that their opinions don't really matter that much in charting the future of the school, until they are in a position to donate serious money, at which point a different administration will be in place anyways.

I had to change my way of thinking about what a university should be when migrating from Neglected State Branch U when I moved to Rice, so I don't see a reason current and potential undergrads en masse shouldn't be exposed to reality sometimes too.
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