Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Moving into the Ritz

By Bryan O'Keefe

The Washington Post has a front page story this morning about a new, opulent apartment building near the University of Maryland that is targeting college students from UM and other area schools. The story goes on to describe the ‚“dorm rooms‚” (quotes mine) as:

“a furnished single room with a double bed, private bathroom, cable and high-speed Internet. Her four-person suite has a full kitchen, a washer and dryer, a dining room table and black leather couches in the living room. Her high-rise building has a game room with video games, poker and pool tables and flat-screen TVs, rooftop deck, a pool and -- losing track here -- okay, and a big fitness center.

And tanning beds.”

While this is a private housing project which makes it less of a problem (at least the taxpayers aren't paying for it!), it's not entirely uncommon anymore to see similar housing in regular dorms too. The question that people should be asking is if this type of housing is really necessaryor just collegiate overspending and indulgence. Sure, the dorms of old might have been a little impersonal, but should colleges and universities be spending their precious few resources on building palatial dorms? Is it really worth raising tuition through the roof and asking state government for more appropriations just so we can build the next Taj Mahal complete with poker tables, swimming pools, and tanning beds?


superhiker said...

It's not clear that opulent dorms on campus have anything to do with tuition. At the public university I know best, the dorms are meant to be (and are) self-supporting. The only subsidy might be private donations. Of course, one could argue that those donations MIGHT be solicited for other uses such as scholarships (or athletics or research or endowed professorships or whatever). But that is a big maybe.

In university accounting this is reflected in dorms being placed into a category called "Auxiliary functions" which is separate from education-related functions.

Whatever one thinks of the opulence of the dorms, the fact is the public i.e. the students and their parents are demanding them, that's why they're being built. They are being used to recruit students. Campuses that have outdated dorm facilities are worried about scaring away students who have come to expect (largely through their home environments, which have also become increasingly opulent) to have a standard of student housing much higher than used to be the norm.

The same is true of dorm food by the way -- the contemporary dorm fare is wildly superior to the slop they used to serve way back when I was privileged to dine on dorm fare.

It's all part of why the total cost of higher education is increasing so fast. But as I said, it's being demanded, which is why I'm so skeptical that efforts to rein in costs are going to have much effect.

Frank said...

Yes, in Virginia, these are auxiliary functions and meant to be fully-funded by the users. Institutions build these "opulent" environments as a response to market demand.

Mr Vedder, sometimes I feel you simply have a bias about what higher education and the college experience should be, based on some ideal found in the 1950s.

While respect your work, the criticism of junior faculty living in air conditioned homes with two newer models is an absurdity. Times have changed, expectations have moved on, as well as the technology. Most communities are not built to be walkable anymore, and that has been true for a number of years, thus the need for two cars. The continued over-engineering of cars that significantly restricts the ability of nearly all owners to do more than change the oil themselves combined with the substantially higher cost of repairs, makes it more economically sensible to own newer model cars than older ones.

I really don't think you have taken full account of how the economy and the world has changed around higher education.

Finally, it seems you think higher education should be an asectic's life, both for the purveyors and the consumers...why? What rational human desires less than what they perceive is the level that everyone else is receiving?

superhiker said...


I'm not sure where Richard Vedder talked about junior faculty having air conditioned homes and two cars. But I think you're right about his outlandish attitudes. As anybody in the real world of academia knows, most junior faculty (and senior faculty) are making financial sacrifices to work in higher education (relative to what can be earned in the outside world).

And consider that he's a "Distinguished Professor" at Ohio University and now he has this Center in Washington, DC. Talk about telling others to do what I say, not what I do!

Frank said...

Superhiker, the comment was in "Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much." (i'm sorry that I forgot to cite that.) I'm not saying his attitudes are outlandish, but I do take issue with some of them. In some areas, I think he is exactly right...but I think the same rightness of question and attitude and should extend to the healthcare industry, and perhaps private enterprise as well.

Rational market behavior is that one seeks the greatest return for the least cost. I think that begins to explain some of things we see in higher long as the word "cost" is used in its broadest sense. Students and parents substitute increased cost in dollars for reduced opportunity other words, they want less sacrifice.

superhiker said...

Terry: When you say "Students and parents substitute increased cost in dollars for reduced opportunity other words, they want less sacrifice."

you have lost me, I'm afraid. I know what opportunity costs are, but the rest I don't follow. How are they substituting dollars costs for opp costs, what sacrifice are they trying to avoid?

By the way, I think you're right about private industry and in fact right in relation to some of what Vedder has said. For example, take college presidents salaries. He thinks they are getting outlandish, and I don't disagree. But compared to what? Look at presidents of corporations, they are being outlandish to an order of magnitude or more greater extent!

Frank said...

Going to college represents cost in dollars, and opportunity to costs. Typically those opportunity costs are expressed dollars given up that could be earned while working immediately after high school. However, opportunity costs can also represent foregoing other activities - such as rock wall climbing, lost study time from doing laundry in a laundromat (thus losing time plus paying additional out of pocket costs, usually for less efficient machines, and sometimes having clothes stolen), and the list can go on and on with items and services now being provided by colleges.

Thus, while the total cost of the education experience seems to be increasing more than it should, it is perhaps simply consolidating costs that students would have incurred anyway, unless they chose to live an ascetic life. One could possibly make the argument that institutions could do these things more efficiently in the aggregate and thus save students and parents money over all.

However, since no one has really ever measured and tracked the ful spending of college students during their college experience, nobody really knows how much they were spending.

Basically, from my lofty perch in state government, I don't hear a lot of students/families trying to negotiate away services in exchange for lower sticker prices. For example, I think athletic fees in Virginia are obscene...I don't think all students should be required to pay them, particualrly if they are not going to use the services (go to the games).

I do hear a lot of complaints about textbooks, but those are less than 10% of the total cost of public education in VA...but they are paid for separately, thus they become an easy target.

superhiker said...

OK, I see. I'm quite sure having the amenities nearby is more expensive. There's a fair amount of complaining about the cost, but few students or their parents think they're not entitled to the more upscale living arrangements.

Textbooks are an interesting issue. They don't on the face of it seem like a bad deal. A 1500 page book with big pages, lots of color figures, equations if sci/tech is 10 cents a page at $150.00. Not bad compared to regular trade books.

The problem perhaps is the obesity of the books brought about by the demand to cover every topic that anyone could ever wish for. Of course not all this stuff can be covered in a real class.

But demands for standardized testing of college students will only bring about more of this overstuffing of books.

One solution to the cost problem is to use old, black and white, slimmed down books e.g. from Dover. When available.

Interesting to see if the students miss the glossy, USA Today, millions of worked examples, spoonfeeding style of the modern texts.

My guess is not, once they get used to the old style. And they certainly will have less to complain about re costs.