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December 8, 2008 [feather]
There's no place like home

The Chronicle of Higher Education is cutting through a lot of the confusion surrounding skyrocketing college costs with a case study of the University of Kansas. CHE points out that in the past twenty years, Kansas has tripled its operating budget, while maintaining a steady enrollment of 26,000 students. During that time, state support has doubled--but while state funding in 1988 covered 40 percent of the operating budget, it now covers only 22 percent. Grants and contracts cover some of the difference, but not all of it. Meanwhile, tuition for in-state students has quintupled. Kansas is still very affordable, at around $7,000/year -- and is much less expensive than rival flagships. Still, the tuition rate has increased at three times the rate of inflation over the past two decades.

Where is all the money going? To various things aimed broadly at enhancing student experience and so improving retention: new facilities (two science buildings, a fitness center replete with climbing wall, renovated dorms, a multicultural resource center, a performing arts center, a writing center, revamped high-tech classrooms, increased library services, IT), more professors, and more bureaucracy to administer all the new student services, to publicize them, and to study them. Energy and health care premiums also add to the total.

The article is an intriguing profile of a university reinventing itself with an eye both to competing with its peer institutions and to genuinely improving educational quality and scholarly excellence. And as such it gives us a rich profile of how contemporary university spending mixes apples and oranges while defining them as essentially the same thing. The improvements to Kansas' research facilities seem impressive and vital. The climbing wall and associated Club Med amenities, not so much. The one is about intellectual quality; the other is about luxurious experience. These are not the same things--and while universities today tend to lump them all in together, it may be the case that they exist in uneasy tension with one another. We see that tension most clearly in students who understand themselves as consumers who have paid for an experience--and, by extension, for a diploma. Entitlement does not mesh nicely with intellectual effort, and when the attitude is widespread, it actively undermines the academic endeavor that is ostensibly the purpose of a campus. An anti-intellectual, binge-drinking, hook-up culture quickly fills the breach.

All that aside, there is one thing that the article does not cover. With all its attention to how much money Kansas has pumped into the thesis that the spending will improve educational outcomes, no attention is paid to whether educational outcomes are any different than they were before Kansas began its spending spree.

Do more Kansas students graduate now than twenty years ago? Has time to degree changed? Kansas is committed to admitting everyone with a 980 SAT score--so it has a major responsibility to those who arrive on campus underprepared for college. Can the university show that students are learning more? Are they proficient readers, writers, and calculators when they graduate? Do they know the basics of American history and do they grasp how our system of government works? Do they have foundational understanding of such things as the scientific method and markets? How are they with foreign languages, or awareness of world events?

I suspect that the inquiring minds of cash-strapped Kansas parents would like to know.

posted on December 8, 2008 8:17 AM

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I agree with this entire post, except for the final paragraph.

The problem (if there is a problem--see below) is not a lack of information. I think parents know that a big chunk of tuition goes to nonacademic luxuries. (How could they not know, given the way colleges tout these luxuries to visiting parents?) I also think parents are smart enough to know that climbing walls don't improve educational outcomes, and I certainly doubt that parents thinks the kids today are just getting smarter and smarter.

So parents understand all this stuff reasonably well. The problem is not that parents lack knowledge. This is important, because a lot of folks seem to think that if only the parents did know they'd rise up in revolt and implement the entire conservative higher-ed program.

But that ain't gonna happen, because parents know all about the university's conflation of "intellectual quality" and "luxurious experience" and they're okay with it. Maybe they're too indulgent, but all the evidence suggests that by and large they don't want their kids to spend four years at some monastery. They want their kids to have some fun.

Is this a problem? Yes--at least if you believe that the taxpayers should be subsidizing education only and not luxury. But in another sense it's not a problem, as long as it's all above-board. I mean, who am I to complain if the voters of Kansas--as represented by their legislators--decide they want their taxes to pay for climbing walls as well as physics labs?

Posted by: Eveningsun at December 8, 2008 9:49 AM

Surely there are people in Kansas who want a good education--for themselves or their kids--but could do without the climbing wall & other amenities. Yet they can't buy one without the under, because both the tuition and the taxes represent a bundled purchase.

Erin's earlier idea of letting the university's hotel services be run by people who are in fact in the hotel & entertainment businesses could address this problem--you could live in the Niemann Marcus dorms, complete with climbing walls and daily massages, or you could live in the Wal-Mart dorms, clean but basic.

Posted by: david foster at December 8, 2008 10:31 AM

You could live in the Niemann Marcus dorms...or you could live in the Wal-Mart dorms. Sure--though the result would be a kind of class segregation the university might find at odds with its social mission.

It seems to me that even though education and luxury are bundled at a given institution, they might still be separable within a state university system. As I said in the previous post, a student who really desires a great education can get one just about anywhere. Maybe what's really being bundled here is not education and luxury but prestige and luxury. The people who "want a good education...but could do without the climbing wall" have plenty of options. In my own state, folks who don't want to pay for the Club Med frills at Big Expensive Flagship University can get a great education for $1,200 a semester at my own humble institution. What they can't get here--what they can't get without also paying for the luxuries--is the prestige attached to the BEFU diploma.

Posted by: Eveningsun at December 8, 2008 12:23 PM

Good point about the class stratification..but isn't this *worse* if they attend completely different universities rather than living in different dorms at the same university?

Posted by: david foster at December 8, 2008 1:20 PM

Isn't this *worse* if they attend completely different universities rather than living in different dorms at the same university? Yes and no. Under your proposal, in an absolute sense, yes, there's less class stratification when the poorer students accept a sort of second-class status so that they can afford Expensive U rather than Cheapo College.

On the other hand, there might be something galling about having one's inferior status rubbed in one's face every day (by having friends who get to use the rec center when you don't, etc.). Hard to say; part of what we're dealing with here involves people's perceptions, and people might perceive the policy as intolerable. I think for many people part of the attraction of the college experience is what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as its utopian quality.

This discussion reminds me of the two fraternity rows at the southern flagship university where I went to grad school. This university was not racially desegregated until the 1970s. Thus the school's historically white fraternities and sororities were (and I believe still are) all located on a stretch of beautiful lakefront property (which the frats lease from the state for $1), while the historically black fraternities were of necessity located in the only neighborhood that, by the late 70s, had room to accommodate them--not exactly a ghetto, but definitely downscale compared to Lake Shore Drive. This difference did not result from any intentional discrimination (other than the original segregationist policy of the state itself), but it had the effect of rubbing a lot racist history in black students' faces every time they drove down LSD and saw how the other half lived.

Posted by: Eveningsun at December 8, 2008 2:49 PM

The problem with cheapo University is that no one considers it equivalent to expensive university. Why do you think people are willing to pay huge amounts of money to get as high on the US News list as possible. If you go to Harvard you can have a career in a log-normally distributed career field such as law or politics.

If you go to cheapo university, you had better limit your career aspirations to nursing, allied healthcare, teaching, or accounting.

Posted by: superdestroyer at December 14, 2008 5:34 PM

If only a university would tout *both* its academics *and* its austere environment. I bet given the current (and coming) economic climate, it's a message more and more would be receptive to - "Come to university X, where the priority is learning, not feeling like you're on a cruise ship."

I went to a very expensive southern college and remember finding its country-club atmosphere (and the type of students it attracted) absolutely nauseating.

The quality of the professors was the only thing that redeemed the place for me.

Posted by: Christopher at December 18, 2008 7:54 PM