A New Year’s Resolution for Higher Education

UV Letter - Volume 2, #1

If my college experience was about any one thing in particular, it was an exploration of a decaying gothic parkland. Someone at some point had spent a lot of money on the place, but clearly not in the past 30 years. The buildings onto which the architects had originally poured sulfuric acid so as to resemble, as one contemporary critic noted, “a stage-set for a musical about Oxford and Cambridge,” looked as though they couldn’t bear another drop. Rooms were cramped, stuffy and overheated. As a rule, doors were unlocked or easily circumvented. And so we ran rampant up towers and down steam tunnels, into the libraries and dining halls at night, and to cupolas where we’d conduct science experiments involving cartons of iced tea and gravity.

Fast forward twenty years and the campus looks more like Disneyland. Suites are airy and well lit. Every room has broadband. Colleges are fully decked out with fitness centers, dance studios, and amenities that are found more often on cruise ships than universities. Students eat in dining halls serving all local, seasonal and sustainable food employing menus designed by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse.

I actually feel sorry for students there today. Because they have cable in their bedrooms, they’ll never learn how to install a VHF antenna on the roof without setting off a fire alarm. That’s a lesson we learned through trial and error. And because they nibble on grass-fed beef burgers, they’re missing out on the fried cheese that was the gastronomic highlight of our week.

My alma mater is not alone in this shift. In fall 2010, University of Michigan opened the $175M North Quad dorm that features a television production studio and two coffee shops. Down in Charlottesville, at another public flagship, UVA spent $220M on construction in 2011, including four new dorms. Out in California, UCLA spent $5.1M to open a dining hall that offers exclusively Asian food from China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, India and Hawaii, pairing two countries for each meal. UCLA chefs designed the menu after visiting leading ethnic restaurants across Southern California and serve up dishes like spinach and seaweed rolls, Indian potato croquettes, Buddha’s delight, Japanese soba noodles with asparagus, all washed down with Korean ginger and rice punch. In case students don’t realize this isn’t typical cafeteria fare, they are welcomed by hosts in several Asian languages and video screens broadcast cable news shows from Japan, South Korea and India. The renovation allowed UCLA to install a stone oven for flatbreads. To ensure students in the heartland don’t miss out, the University of Missouri has launched a dining hall where chefs prepare each student’s order individually. Back at Michigan, the new North Quad has been awarded gold status by the National Association of College and University Food Services for its salmon filet, tortellini with walnut pesto sauce, lamb and even shark.

It’s not difficult to find apologists for such extravagance. UCLA’s residential food and beverage director calls today’s college students “much more food savvy. They are used to going out to eat and more used to restaurant environments and restaurant quality of food.” The dining services director at University of Kansas says “experiencing good food in a nice setting can influence a student's choice of a college and continuing relationship with it.” And at UVA, the Director of Facilities ponders “the big question of how is it that students learn? Is it just the classroom, or is it in the halls between class? Or is the environment part of the teaching tool? I would say the environment is part of the teaching tool and Mr. Jefferson felt that very strongly.”

As we enter a new year, it’s not unreasonable to ask how a rock climbing wall serves advances learning outcomes, even for geology majors. Because it’s easier for students, their parents, alumni and trustees to compare shower fixtures or dining hall menus than organic chemistry curricula (let alone learning outcomes themselves), universities find themselves in an expensive facilities arms race. According to one UVA student quoted in the Cavalier Daily, “It’s a misappropriation of funds. They’re cutting classes, departments aren’t funded well enough; they are sacrificing our education for the sake of getting more money from alumni.”

More likely, universities are passing these costs along to students. UCLA boasts that its new dining hall is not paid for by state funds, but rather student dining fees. That’s consistent with recent findings by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. While the cost of attending a four-year college has risen by $3,000 per student over the past decade, only 1/3 of that increase is due to tuition; 2/3 is from non-tuition sources, primarily room and board. The Center’s founder, Richard Veder, has noted that “Universities are in the business of feeding, lodging, entertaining, and providing health care, and sometimes these activities absorb as many, or more resources as funds spent on teaching and research.” Clearly, as the report concludes, “more attention needs to be paid to cost control for these other expenses.”


No one can be against architecture or fine dining when they don’t increase costs. Great meals can spark great conversations. Architecture can inspire. But nothing in higher education inspires us more than actual learning outcomes. So in this day and age, it is difficult to support allocating higher education resources to functions and assets that don’t directly support learning. We think Mr. Jefferson would agree.

This is particularly true at state-supported universities like Mr. Jefferson’s. The University of California and CSU systems are struggling through an academic year where they have seen reductions in state support of over 20%. From a facilities standpoint, their challenges may be foreshadowed by what has happened at California Community Colleges, where state funding fell by 40%. In October, the Los Angeles Community College District suspended all new construction because it became clear it could not possibly maintain the new facilities. The stalled buildings included such projects as a $38-million fashion and fine arts building at Los Angeles Trade Technical College and a $7.4-million fitness center and sports field at West Los Angeles College.

Higher education needs to adopt a New Year’s resolution to go on a facilities diet. Reducing the focus on real estate is key to ensuring the HE bubble doesn’t pop like the real estate bubble. So it’s time for HE leaders to do what’s best for students, not what they think students, parents, alumni and even trustees want. And what’s best for students is to invest in tracking and improving learning outcomes.

What we’ll find when Presidents and Provosts begin leading, rather than following the market, is that better learning outcomes can be achieved at lower costs – lower costs driven by equal parts technology-based learning, VHF antennas and fried cheese.

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