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.