The cost of entertaining campus life

COVID-19 has altered the landscape of college campuses nationwide, making attendance at in-person events no longer part of the college life experience.

For decades, the emphasis has leaned more toward providing students a fun, inviting environment with less of a focus on funding curriculum and faculty, according to an article from McKinsey & Company. 

“The core mission of colleges and universities is instruction, research and service,” McKinsey & Company stated. “In recent decades, though, many have engaged in the so-called student-amenities arms race, with expansive offerings in areas, such as entertainment, gourmet dining and wellness.” 

In an article for Inside Higher Ed, Richard Keeling and Richard Hersh refer to the cycle many universities are stuck in by offering more campus perks to boost enrollment, which pays for those perks.

Keeling and Hersh discuss the demand on college campuses to attain elevated rankings through sheer numbers versus the quality of the education being provided. This, in turn, leads to no institution wanting to be the first to make a change.

“The leaders of many, if not most, colleges and universities might agree with this assessment of the problem, but would likely argue, with some justice, that no single institution can risk being the only one to change; that restoring attention to the fundamentals, rather than the frills, would put that one institution at serious risk,” Keeling and Hersh wrote.

In a society where the majority agrees a person attends college to get a good job, a 2013 Gallup-Lumina Foundation poll on higher education illustrates how differently it is valued from varying perspectives.

According to Gallup, 96% of chief academic officers at higher education institutions claim their institutions are effective in preparing students for the workforce, while only 14% of United States citizens would agree and only 11% of business leaders would say the same.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said much of these issues remain, but the pandemic may provide a starting point for turning things around.

“I think COVID-19 is going to revolutionize higher education in profound and lasting ways,” Pasquerella said. “College and university presidents have recognized that in this quick pivot to remote and online learning.”

Pasquerella does not necessarily subscribe to the opinion that many campuses emphasize entertainment over all and said much of the issue lies in the lack of financial backing for public education, which leaves institutions scrambling to find ways of funding themselves.

“There certainly is this trope about how colleges and universities have become places where there are lazy rivers and climbing walls, and it’s all about who can compete for students who are looking for the best concierge services,” Pasquerella said. “That’s not the reality at most institutions, especially state-funded institutions that are putting their resources elsewhere. We can’t continue to raise tuition and have burgeoning loan burdens for students, especially at a time when job prospects are uncertain.”

This also lends itself to the issue of rising costs for higher education and what tuition is paying for.

“There’s been, over the past several decades, a decline in public funding of higher education, so we move from this notion of higher education as a public good to a private commodity,” Pasquerella said. “In many states, they’re facing those situations where they’re not getting the support from the state, so they have to charge more in tuition and room and board, which means they are in danger of thwarting their own mission of serving the needs of people in their state.”

State appropriation for ASU went down just over 15% from 2009 to 2019 and its tuition went up almost 20%, according to ASU’s current budget report. NAU records show a decrease in state appropriation funding from 33.3% in 2009 to 17.1% in 2019, while the tuition revenue increased from 27.4% in 2009 to 39.4% in 2019. 

During the same period of 2009 to 2019, UArizona reports illustrate its state appropriations went from 24.4% to 11.8%, and tuition rose from 18.8% to 31.4% of the university’s annual revenue.

McKinsey & Company has reported spending on student services has been four times that of spending on instruction.

“While students surely appreciate things like luxury gyms and other services, there is a need to distinguish between what students like and what is necessary to serve the core education mission,” McKinsey & Company stated. “Given the budget stresses of the COVID-19 crisis, higher-education institutions may want to consider providing fewer, better ancillary services, while keeping the broader well-being of their students in mind.”

As explained by Keeling and Hersh, the need to influence change at the collegiate level is a societal issue and must involve people at every level.

“Cultural problems require cultural solutions, starting with a national conversation about what is wrong and what is needed in higher education,” Keeling and Hersh said. “The country should reasonably expect higher education to lead this conversation. For real change to occur, discussions about the quality and quantity of learning in higher education and the need for reform must occur at multiple levels, in many places, and over a significant period of time — most importantly on campuses themselves.”

An article by Michael Smith for The Atlantic showcased the similarities between the entertainment industry and higher education from a business perspective by explaining how technology had been looked at as a secondary option, putting the in-person experience above all else.

Smith discussed how the music and cable industries once got away with raising prices on CDs and premium channels until they were forced to acknowledge the impact of digital copies and streaming. By comparison, he said the same of colleges and universities continuing to increase tuition and fees with the promise of a better experience than online, but the pandemic has exposed the volatility of campus life when accessibility is limited.

“And this past semester, the coronavirus pandemic transformed distance learning from a quaint side product that few elite schools took seriously to a central part of our degree-granting programs,” Smith said. “Arguments for the inherent superiority of the residential college experience will be less convincing now that we’ve conferred the same credentials — and charged the same tuition — for education delivered remotely.”

Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) communications director, Julie Newberg, responded in an email that questions about this topic would be better directed at each individual institution.

ASU senior media relations officer Jerry Gonzalez referred back to ABOR’s operations and finance review, streaming live Feb. 12 from 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.

The best person to address these types of questions is our university president, but unfortunately, it is very difficult to get into his schedule,” Gonzalez said in an email.

NAU spokesperson Kimberly  Ott, described in an email how the university’s technology evolved to make classes more accessible.

“We have already transformed much of the ways in which we do business,” Ott said. “With 95 percent of our classrooms equipped with NAUFlex technology during COVID-19, faculty and students have embraced the technology, resulting in impressive statistics. Technology has strengthened our ability to remain engaged with our students, a critical factor in maintaining strong retention.” 

UArizona had yet to comment at the time of publication.