At a time when college tuition list prices are higher than ever before, CBS News recently spotlighted how some colleges are spending more on lavish perks like lazy rivers in an effort to lure students to their campuses often at the expense of core academic facilities like libraries.
While education onlookers have been quick to decry college administrators’ misappropriation of funds for education when spent on such apparent excesses, research that Bob Moesta and I led at the Christensen Institute suggests that for many of the students attending these schools, this type of opulent experience may be precisely part of what they are buying. Spending on these items also gives lie to the idea that brick-and-mortar colleges don’t spend much money on marketing. Spending on amenities like lazy rivers, alongside college athletics expenditures, may not be formally classified as marketing on a school’s 990, but they are certainly used to attract students.
Despite the finding that nearly 90 percent of students say they are going to college to get a job, according to UCLA’s annual survey of freshmen entering four-year colleges and universities, as Bob and I documented in our new book Choosing College, that’s an oversimplification at best.
Many students are choosing their college because as part of a drive to get into the best school possible, they want the “classic” college experience they’ve been led to expect. As Joe May, the chancellor of the Dallas Community College District, recently told Jeff Selingo and me on an episode of Future U, all too often colleges sell their experience as a lifestyle, not for its other benefits.
That means many students expect the climbing walls, opulent dining halls, top-notch gyms and yes, even the lazy rivers.
The big challenge facing schools who are optimizing around these students is this, however: In a world of unlimited resources, many students and their families might continue to opt for these extravagant, high-end programs. But most students and families do not live in such a world. With limited resources and questions around the future of work, they may increasingly voice skepticism about the value of these expensive, undifferentiated institutions and look elsewhere.
Demand for traditional college experiences, in other words, is unlikely to be infinitely inelastic no matter how desirable. Indeed, many small, rural liberal arts colleges are already on the precipice of closing, as their business model is fundamentally unsustainable.
Following that, there is likely a limit to the number of colleges that can win at serving students who want these experiences. Already today, only a minority of college students live on campus and are enrolled full time. That number will likely shrink in the years ahead given changing demographics that will result in fewer traditional college-aged students.
An additional challenge is that although many colleges probably think they are serving students desiring this experience, they are in many cases likely serving great numbers of students who are attending college to fulfill someone else’s expectations of them. It is important for institutions to be realistic about the circumstances in which their students actually are, not where they might wish they were.
Given the overbuilt nature of many institutions’ physical plants, spending on fancy features like lazy rivers may be wise in the short term but dangerous in the longer run.
A more difficult question for schools looking to serve students who want the fancy amenities and the classic college experience might be this: how can schools offer unexpected experiences that surprise and delight students who are coming for the classic college experience in ways that are more differentiated, less costly, and more creative than simply continuing the facility arms race in higher education?
The answer may not be obvious, but for places of higher learning, they should be up for the intellectual challenge as though the future of their institutions depends on the answer. Because it just might.