Color This Disheartening

Like many other small teaching colleges, Mondoville’s precarious budgeting is enrollment/tuition driven to a great extent, and over the years, this has meant that we’ve been known to “reach” from time to time, recruiting kids who we might not admit in more flush circumstances because they’ll bring in additional funding. This isn’t anything new — colleges admit students for a variety of reasons besides academic talent, including ability in the arts and various sports, legacy admissions and the like. And more than a few of those kids manage to succeed when they’re here and go on to lead productive, happy lives, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As for me, I teach whoever I get to the best of my ability, and by the end of my workday, I still feel I have clean hands and composure.

However, an article that I saw at the Chronicle‘s web site today brought me down a bit. As the discussion of the “higher ed bubble“/five-year party continues, there has been a continuing argument over colleges investing in such non-academic features as fitness centers, swanky student unions, and the notorious “climbing wall”, which seems to have become the symbol of the whole “wasted money” side of the argument. Far better, we say, that such money be invested in salary and faculty recruitment, or in library resources, or in any number of things that we contend college is all about.

However, a study from the U of Michigan suggests that the wall-builders may be on the right track for certain schools after all:

“More selective schools have a much greater incentive to improve academic quality” because that is valued by the high-achieving students that they are trying to attract, the researchers write. “Less selective (but expensive) schools, by comparison, have a greater incentive to focus on consumption amenities.”

But one aspect of their conclusion is startling: The less-selective colleges might actually harm their enrollment by spending more on instruction. “One important implication is that for many institutions, demand-side market pressure may not compel investment in academic quality, but rather in consumption amenities,” they write. “This is an important finding given that quality assurance is primarily provided by demand-side pressure: the fear of losing students is believed to compel colleges to provide high levels of academic quality. Our findings call this accountability mechanism into question.”

In other words, one would think that market forces would reward colleges that invest in teaching and academics, and that we would have better colleges over all because of that market pressure. But it turns out, the researchers say, that prospective students of the less-selective colleges may care more about investment in the “resort” experience of college, and hence academic quality may not be enhanced by market forces.

And so we return to the Jam’s classic song, “Going Underground“: “Well the public wants what the public gets/ But I don’t get what society wants.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll slam my head against a nearby wall until the pain goes away.


About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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6 Responses to Color This Disheartening

  1. Fred Johnson says:

    “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll slam my head against a nearby wall until the pain goes away.”
    “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll slam my head against a nearby CLIMBING wall until the pain goes away.

  2. Javahead says:

    For the less selective colleges, who makes the final application choice? The amenity-seeking presumably-slacker students you posit, or the parents who are paying a significant portion of the freight?

    I know that when my kids were looking at colleges, we strongly encouraged them to choose the most academically rigorous schools at the most reasonable cost. We were lucky enough to get them into solid public universities. We also told them that if they wanted a more-expensive option that unless it was markedly better in academics they could attend – but that they’d need to work or get loans (that we would NOT co-sign) to cover the difference in cost. They were both smart about it and chose good schools whose expenses we could stretch enough to manage. Not the most prestigious schools in our state, but above-average academically while not prohibitively expensive.

    I can see being willing to stretch, scrimp, and possibly float loans for getting into a school with better academics in their major, or (sadly practical) more prestige of the more-likely-to-get-a-first-job Ivy League sort. But for a 4+ year course in extended adolescence? Nice if you can afford it, but the costs are ever rising.

    I’m afraid that any student who prefers playtime and academic pablum to solid academics deserves precisely what they receive. There are plenty of solid academic mid-range schools out there, many with reasonable tuition. Even if the Club U schools are doing OK now, I think that tuition, feel-good degrees, and student loans are following a skyrocket’s course – and the detonation is approaching fast.

    When I see the horror stories that crop up from time to time (“My kid got a decree in underwater feminist basket weaving at big-name U but owes $150K on the loan that I co-signed, and now I’m afraid I’ll lose my house!”) I feel sorry for them – but I also want to smack them with a clue-by-four. School is an investment – years of your life, money paid, income forgone, effort both mental and physical.

    Unless you’re independently wealthy, practicality needs to enter into your choice of both school and major. Because you *will* be stuck paying for it somehow. Parents need to understand this, and do their best to ensure that their kids understand it, too. By all means, follow your heart in your choices – but it’s up to *you* to do your best to ensure that you get the full educational measure you paid for. In 10 years, nobody will care that your school had a great climbing wall. The very likely will care that you studied under respected scholars and that your school has a solid program in your field of major. Demanding any less is just cheating yourself.

  3. dave.s. says:

    Since I have three, I am about to pay for twelve years of college, starting in two years. My children are your customers only to a very limited extent. I am your customer, and I am Very Skeptical about climbing walls. I LIKE quality instruction.

  4. Jeff says:

    During the early years of the iPod, a few universities–including Duke and, I believe, GWU–gave them to all incoming freshmen for “free.” It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that for students taking out loans, this was just another luxury that students and their families would be stuck paying off for up to 30 years. (Thanks to the magic of compound interest, that $300 iPod could easily become an $1,100 iPod.)

    It’s grimly amusing, and I think typical of the American mindset these days, that many parents want all sorts of on-campus perks and luxuries but are genuinely shocked when the bill comes due. Who do they think pays for all this stuff?

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