Sunday, August 03, 2008

The CountryClubization of Public Universities

By Richard Vedder

State-funded universities exist for at least three reasons. First, they are to be instruments in achieving the American egalitarian ideal -- everyone should have a good chance to succeed on their merits, independent of their financial condition or station in life. Second, state universities allegedly help create "human capital" that furthers prosperity and development (I say "allegedly", because I believe the return on the investment in human capital is, in fact, pretty low). Third, state universities perform certain broad public service functions, such as agricultural extension services provided by land grant institutions.

Modern day state universities, however, are losing sight of their core missions, and are becoming more elitist and research-oriented. They want to be public Harvards. But, to achieve that, they still want good undergraduate students -- if, for no other reason, than to bolster their US News & World Report rankings. One way of doing this is to create luxury facilities for students.

This all came back to me when a friend and co-conspirator in the cultural wars and in college reform, Candace de Russy (of Phi Beta Cons blog fame, and former SUNY Board of Regents member) forwarded me an email from a friend who lives in Binghamton, New York, home of one of the better SUNY (State University of New York) campuses. The letter told about multiple new luxury apartment projects for students underway. Then the correspondent said a local talk show caller recently claimed that the SUNY Foundation was buying a luxury golf course nearby as well (whether that, in fact, is true I have no idea).

If the golf course is being bought to promote university recreational purposes, SUNY Binghamton truly is pursuing "countryclubization" to its ultimate. If it is being bought as an investment, it still strikes me as a bit odd (a somewhat speculative use of funds for a modest sized endowment). Perhaps the rumor is unfounded. But the fact that the rumor exists at all suggests that the public increasingly looks at public universities as havens for relatively affluent kids to spend some pleasant R and R time for a few years between their adolescence and adulthood. The notion of colleges as noble institutions, engaged in public service while carefully husbanding the limited resources at their disposal, is vanishing fast, and, I suspect, as a consequence, public political support for colleges may take a tumble in the future as well.

I am not trying to pick on SUNY Binghamton --I teach at a university where upscale housing is being constructed all over, where the institution has a golf course and a fair-to-middling climbing wall, a school that made no. 5 on the new Princeton Review list of America's party schools. What is increasingly missing in today's state university is either a zeal to help the children of citizens of below average means to succeed, or a passion for pushing intellectual and academic excellence on students from all walks of life. Increasingly, the emphasis is on amenities, on non-academic frills, on having fun. Grade point averages rise while student work effort falls. We are spending more on our public higher education but demanding less of the students, who increasingly use governmentally subsidized loans to support increasingly upscale living. The taxpayer has to ask: why should I be subsidizing this?


Dan A said...

As a Binghamton University student, I can say that the idea of the foundation (which is a separate entity from the school) buying a golf-course is patently absurd and the rumor probably unfounded (the area is depressed and can barely support the golf course already there). The proposed "luxury apartments" in question are being proposed by a private developer not associated with the school, and not planned for the self-contained campus.

right-wing prof said...

Well said. The idea of being a place for the not so affluent to study seems to be gone. I tried many times at my previous (state) institution to push for Dover calculus books, which run around $10 paperback, instead of the $150 monstrosities that put out new editions every couple years. Everyone always had some silly little reason to object.

Lenny said...

Perhaps, the good doctor would be so kind as to actually back up his claims with a little data showing causality.

Were one to look at his own state, one would find the reality somewhat at odds with his broad slanders...uhh, I mean generalizations.

Looking at Ohio's three oldest public universities, one finds that Ohio State--which is both the research powerhouse and the most selective in its undergraduate student body--has by far more socio-economic diversity than does its less selective, less research oriented brethren at Ohio University and Miami of Ohio.

Now, I'm not saying that the Ohio situation translates on a macro level nationwide. I'm just saying that the good doctor seems to be painting with a rather broad brush. Holding straw men (and their golf courses) up for ridicule is all good and well. It, however, does not count much towards good, fundamental research.

capeman said...

"Candace de Russy ... forwarded me an email from a friend ... The letter told about multiple new luxury apartment projects for students underway. Then the correspondent said a local talk show caller recently claimed that the SUNY Foundation was buying a luxury golf course nearby as well (whether that, in fact, is true I have no idea)."

Someone forwarded the good Doc an email from a friend who reported what caller to a talk show claimed about a golf course, and the good Doc has no idea whether this is true, but passing it along as what, a public service?

I hope the good Doc has higher standards in his "research reports" than in passing on this kind of third or fourth hand "information".

Mad Dog said...

If we held all the blogs on the internet to the same standards that Vedder is being held to, what a wonderful world it would be.

If this subject is being discussed on a radio talk show, it's creating negative perceptions of Higher Education.

"right-wing prof" - You nailed it in your second sentence.