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?