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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

What College Rank's ’30 Best College Leisure Pools’ Says About Higher Ed.

By Rick Hess — May 26, 2015 2 min read
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Hidy all, I’m back. While I was away, I spent a bit of time reflecting on the tidal wave of press releases, suggested blogs, announcements, offers, and PR noise that floods my inbox nowadays. The whole morass is disconcerting, but some of it can also prove revealing (usually, I think, in ways unintended).

Just last week, I received a breathless release from College Rank naming the “30 best college leisure pools.” The article’s author, Mackenzi Flannery, explained, “Recreational facilities and amenities have become a major part of the appeal of college campuses around the country. Our list highlights some of the top leisure pool facilities and what those options provide to students as they look to complete their collegiate experience.”

Tellingly, 2/3 or more of the 30 schools on the list are located at (taxpayer-supported) public institutions. Indeed, many of the “honorees” are institutions that routinely insist they desperately need more state funds, including two University of California campuses and two Cal State campuses. The press release observed, “College tuition is steadily increasing and college students are looking closer at amenities and campus facilities when making their college selections. Having an incredible pool on campus (often with lazy rivers!) gives colleges a leg up on competition.”

I found the list and the release a remarkably revealing commentary on the whole state of the higher ed-industrial complex. Institutions plead poverty even as they engage in expensive contests to one-up one another when it comes to “leisure pools” . . . and climbing walls, fitness facilities, student centers, dorms, student life staff, diversity programming, and more. This mindset fuels a cost spiral, burdening students and taxpayers while prompting college leaders to complain that they have no choice—that this is what students demand. When legislatures trim public spending, universities don’t cut back on the pools; instead, they resort to the old “close the Washington Monument strategy” and wring their hands while explaining they’re going to have to shutter the chemistry department. In fact, outside of Purdue under President Mitch Daniels, in recent years, it’s hard to think of a major university that has really made cutting costs and trimming fat a point of public pride.

Of course, when confronted with extravagant spending by university officials, there are those who will find a way to blame it all on villainous Republican policymakers and “the rich.” The Nation’s Michelle Goldberg manages to do just that, explaining that colleges have only spent money on hot tubs and resort-like amenities because legislators have cut their budgets. In a delightful turn, she explains that universities would stop wasting money if only taxpayers would give them more of it.

Now, other than taking care not to go to Goldberg for financial advice, I don’t know of any simple solutions. Students have an understandable taste for amenities, small classes, and boutique options. University leaders have shown themselves plenty happy to provide these things. But no one likes the costs of all this and students get buyer’s remorse once they see the cost of their loans. At the same time, a slew of statutory, regulatory, and cultural bottlenecks stymie the emergence of cheaper competitors. Figuring out a solution is no easy task. For what it’s worth, though, it’s tough for me to take seriously wannabe-resort institutions when they plead poverty, or complaints about onerous loan burdens from the students who’ve chosen to attend them.

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