Many colleges and universities — including state-funded public schools — try to lure students by offering luxurious, or state of the art facilities on campus. Schools justify such expenditures by saying that their enrollees are demanding everything from towering dorms to rock walls. These non-academic amenities often raise the cost of tuition and fees slightly, but do little to improve the college’s reputation.
In order to see how much these amenities actually matter to students during the college selection process, economists Amanda Griffith of Wake Forest University and Kevin Rask of Colorado College analyzed high-ability students between 2005 and 2012.
The study found that how much students value luxurious non-academic amenities largely depends on their financial status. For example, high-achieving students who do not need financial aid tend to make their final college choices based on reputation, focusing on factors like U.S. News and World Report rankings, Griffith explained. Therefore, non-academic amenities would only matter to them if they influenced a college’s reputation, which they frequently do not.
For high-ability students who are receiving financial aid, however, these amenities can have a negative impact. The study found that since the recession, a larger proportion of students are concerned with the price of college. Because purchasing non-academic amenities can sometimes force schools to increase their fees slightly, these additional luxuries can make colleges less attractive to students who are searching for an affordable academic option.
Academic reputation as measured by the USNWR ranking is a very important influence on college choice, and continues to become more important over time. For no-need students, academic reputation is one of the only characteristics that significantly impacts college choice. Therefore, investing in strategies that lead to a more favorable USNWR ranking will have significant impacts on yield of both aided and no-need students, and in particular on yield of top-ability and high-income students.
According to the report, this finding provides more incentive for strategies that have been seen recently at schools like Emory, George Washington, and Bucknell, where incorrect information was given to US News in order to bolster their ranking. Given the high enrollment payoff to a better USNWR ranking, it is clear that institutions have incentives to “cheat” in this manner.
These results also suggest that the arms race in which top colleges are currently involved may not be an effective method of attracting students, particularly recently. The focus appears to be shifting to cost, which will continue to rise as expenditures rise. Institutions may want to increase their aid programs and keep tuition increases to a minimum in order to continue attracting aided students. However, given the importance of maintaining academic quality and reputation, both expensive endeavors, schools face a difficult trade-off when trying to keep costs down.
Still, many college faculty feel their institutions need to have modern and cutting-edge facilities in order to attract students. In 2005, Jean Rutherford Wall, director of college counseling at Tampa Preparatory School, told Bloomberg that universities create amenities like climbing walls and massage rooms to become more attractive to potential enrollees.
“Colleges feel they must market the tangible products that are readily available to the student,” she said. “Fancy new dorms with suite configurations, the newest toys, airy student centers with Starbucks and science labs that are cutting edge. If they don’t have these things, it puts them at a disadvantage in the marketplace.”
According to U.S. News, many higher education experts agree with the study’s findings, however, stating that non-academic amenities are not always as attractive to students as some college faculty expect they will be. Jeffrey Selingo, an editor with The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the book College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, expressed his opinion on the matter in a recent interview with NPR.
“You have climbing walls, which I think everybody has, but now you even have these lazy rivers where you can get in an inner tube and go down,” Selingo said. “College presidents say that students and parents want this. But my contention is that if Harvard tomorrow decided to knock down all its residence halls and essentially build jail cells, do you think people would stop coming to Harvard? They’d probably keep going.”