My grandmother Estelle Craig was a remarkable woman. She was a journalist in the 1940s; a letter to her from J. Edgar Hoover hangs on my office wall. In the 1950s she founded a travel business – World Adventure Tours – that marketed tours via celebrity talks on exotic locales; a signed photo of Sir Edmund Hillary hangs right above J. Edgar. When the Duke of Bedford came to town – presumably to sell tours of Bedford and environs – she got media attention by starting a rumor that he was planning to buy Toronto’s only castle. She loved travel, hobnobbing, and making trouble, in that order.
She was also generous. Before she passed away at the age of 103, my kids would send her thank you cards for birthday gifts. Even at that remarkable age she was as sharp as a tack, but had trouble seeing and hearing. My son Leo liked to type his on an electric typewriter, leading to this exchange:
Leo: Dad, should I type her thank you note in ALL CAPS?
Ryan: Why would you do that?
Leo: So when her helper reads it to her, she'll know to yell.
Leo’s subtlety and/or innocence stands in stark contrast to Nido Qubein, President of North Carolina’s High Point University, the subject of recent long-form pieces in Town & Country and North Carolina’s The Assembly. When Nido, a motivational speaker, took over the struggling tuition-dependent Methodist liberal arts college – now nearly 103 years old – his strategy was neither subtle nor innocent. In order to grow enrollment, High Point would compete on amenities.
The campus Nido has built over the past 18 years is a stage set in Hollywood for a movie about college. High Point has more Doric columns than the Parthenon. Every part of the campus is perfectly manicured. Every open space has a pool or monumental statue, every pool a towering fountain, every view is Instagrammable. With all the columns, fountains, and cupolas – High Point’s cupola cup runneth over – when students share campus tours on social media, you won’t see the inside of a classroom.
Beyond the physical plant, High Point boasts a high-end steak house, a first-run movie theater, valet parking, an arcade, a car wash, an ice cream truck, an indoor track with built-in pacing system, and a concierge at the student union. High Point even has a “director of wow” charged with delighting students. It’s higher education run by Disney.
High Point is far from the first example of a college succeeding on grounds having little to do with education. There’s sports (Alabama), geography (NYU, USC), and brand (countless doddering, coasting institutions). None are meritless, as student outcomes can hinge heavily on connections and all of the above serve that capacity. But an amenities strategy built entirely for show – for the campus tour – marks a “high point” of higher education shamelessness. The shamelessness extends to High Point’s leader who has been motivated to build a monument to himself; the school’s basketball team plays at the Qubein Center – decked out with North Carolina’s second-largest scoreboard – located on Qubein Avenue.
It's all working. High Point has quadrupled in size to 6,000 students paying $42K for tuition and at least $16,500 for room and board. ($16,500 is tier 1; High Point has five tiers of student housing; tier 5 runs $30,000.) High Point doesn’t have to do much tuition discounting: only 29% vs. 55% for comparable institutions. The result is $254M in annual revenue and a $68M operating surplus – excess cash supporting more borrowing for more columns, fountains, and cupolas.
It's easy to take potshots at High Point’s amenities. I know because I did a drive-by in my last book. And criticism is not unimportant given that High Point is testing the bounds of what a non-profit university can be; as Robert Kelchen of University of Tennessee notes, “quite a few small private colleges would like to follow High Point’s example [because it’s] incredibly profitable right now.” It’s also easy to take potshots at President Qubein’s handpicked dean of High Point’s new law school: Mark Martin who, according to the House Committee on the Janary 6 attack, “advised President Trump that Vice President Pence possessed the constitutional authority to impede the electoral count.” But I have a different bone to pick. Just as the Varsity Blues scandal was a symptom of a broken admissions system, High Point is a symbol of a broken system – the higher education version of a recent New York Times critique of Prince Harry and Megan Markle: "two trivial people who hold a mirror to the triviality of the societies they inhabit.”
It’s unfair to blame parents for mistaking amenities for quality when no college or university tracks and reports meaningful student outcomes. High Point does as much outcome hand waving as any other school, reporting a six-year graduation rate (70%) and that “ 98% of its 2021 graduates were employed or in grad school within six months.” But these aren’t really outcomes. An above-average graduation rate could easily be the result of High Point’s customer service ethos and its own admission that “HPU faculty listen to the demands of the marketplace” i.e., parents and students demand social promotion. And 98% isn’t a plausible survey response rate, so the denominator may be responders rather than graduates. If it’s real, the definition of “employed” could be very loose and certainly doesn’t imply employed in-field, let alone in a good job.
Here's what we do know: High Point spending on instruction is much less than its annual surplus and was down double digits last year. The one publicly available document from High Point’s accreditor (SACS) is a “ quality enhancement plan” to provide the school “with a vibrant Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning” at a laughable annual budget of $280K. Washington Monthly, which attempts to rank schools based on value, put High Point at 211 out of 259 in the bachelor’s category. But again, in a sector where no one really tracks outcomes, amenities-as-a-signal-of-quality isn’t an order of magnitude crazier than other easy-to-see-but-irrelevant indicators. Even the hit job in The Assembly didn’t question High Point’s learning or employment outcomes.
Aside from motivational speaking and knowing what parents think college should look like, Nido Qubein’s genius is recognizing this lacuna and coming up with something that smells and tastes like education.
High Point attempts to check the education box with “ life skills,” which it defines as the ability to “communicate, build relationships… grow and thrive… adapt… work smarter… accepting failure as the price for learning.. navigating complex situations” i.e., what you might get from an effective motivational speech. So you won’t be surprised to learn every freshman is required to take President Qubein’s Life Skills course to “chart a path for success.” Beyond providing the president with a captive audience and branding itself as “ the Premier Life Skills University,” High Point seems sincere about life skills. In the steakhouse, students learn to make reservations, dress up, and navigate meetings over meals. High Point even has a mock airplane interior so students can practice business pitches to a seatmate.
While making a restaurant reservation isn’t at the top of anyone’s list, equipping students with life skills is a good idea. Last month’s Populace survey found the #1 goal of K-12 education should be for students to develop practical skills like managing personal finances, preparing a meal, and making an appointment. Still, High Point’s “don’t look there, look over here” approach to education is fatally flawed.
With an 80% admissions rate and early acceptance rate of 87%, High Point is effectively an open-enrollment institution – an open-enrollment institution that’s opened a lucrative niche: no other open-enrollment school looks as good as High Point. So in stark contrast to less beautiful open-enrollment schools, High Point almost exclusively enrolls wealthy students from out-of-state. High Point ranks 1,629 out of 1,658 institutions in terms of low-income students. For the few it attracts, High Point provides loans, not grants; students from families making $30K or less pay an annual net price of $33,814. Like the Ritz-Carlton, High Point doesn’t discount (bad for the brand). According to students, “people here are really bougie” and “there is no diversity.”
The idea of learning life skills at such a place is laughable. What kind of life skills are you going to get on a campus populated solely by rich kids from families who value amenities? It’s not remotely representative of the society in which graduates are going to have to succeed. High Point doesn't sound like any workplace in America, with the possible exception of the Republican National Committee. The resulting “life skills” are likely to be as useful and durable as a motivational speech.
It’s not just High Point. Dozens of small, expensive private schools are doing the same thing, only they’ve been doing it longer and aren’t nearly as gauche. But for most High Point students, life skills probably means figuring out which amenities to spend their family’s money on. Says Nido Qubein, “I am proud of how High Point University has transformed itself into an institution of higher learning and higher living.”
My point is this: High Point’s life skills logic doesn’t compute. In the patois of the rich, it’s a problem for the concierge.
The rise of High Point shows just how entrenched America’s tuition culture is. At the age of 18 or 19, privileged children aren’t ready for the real world. Best send them to a fancy playpen to spend years “getting ready” rather than doing. You know a better place to gain those life skills? A job. But you don’t see High Point doing more than your garden-variety college to connect students with employers or earn-and-learn experiences.
If High Point truly cares about life skills, why doesn’t it do more? The ultimate problem connecting High Point graduates to good jobs is that, as Ohio University’s Richard Vedder wrote in Forbes, “employers hiring high paid workers feel they need someone with more than a degree from the College of Last Resort.” And the reason High Point graduates won’t have the necessary skills – including life skills – isn’t that it’s a college of last resort. It’s because this particular college of last resort is a resort.