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.