Colleges and universities have lost focus on their primary mission: educating young adults. They’ve strayed from their traditional role, and are instead engaging in wasteful spending.
Today they demand that students pay for myriad non-educational services and activities, most often supported through “student activity fees,” “athletic fees” and other add-on charges that drastically inflate the cost of attending college, which has given rise to politicians wanting student loan increases or arguing that college should be 100 percent taxpayer funded.
Institutions of higher education have become home to gladiators doing combat on the gridiron to satisfy the blood lust of spectators, and, if we’re to believe the contemporary media, temples of male aggression that foster a culture of rape, all of which is financed by students and their families who are increasingly buried under mountains of debt.
But before the Bernie Sanders’ of the country get their wish and taxpayers foot the bill for college, we should demand that post-secondary education gets back to the business of educating and to the associated job of feeding and housing America’s 21 million college students. Colleges and universities do a disservice to their students, both financially and educationally, when they spend less than one-third of their annual budgets on instruction yet spend freely on non-educational activities, events and social groups.
Actually, one-third is a generous overstatement. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, public colleges and universities (in the 2012-2013 school year) spent 27 percent of their budget on instruction. Private, non-profit schools dedicated a bit more, around 30 percent, while private for-profit universities trailed the pack at just 25 percent. So where does the rest of the money go?
Certainly a portion goes to maintaining the plant and equipment, the IT infrastructure that has become so critical to 21st century pedagogy, along with security, housing and food services. Administration is another major expense component; it includes salaries and benefits for the President, the Deans, Assistant Deans and, at most schools, an army of administrators who handle everything from helping students through the financial aid process to admissions to facilities administration.
However, spending that supports non-educational activities including sports, entertainment events and social groups contribute nothing directly and little indirectly to the core educational process. Actually, they may take away from it. Neither does that spending prepare students to enter a competitive workplace. All such spending should be eliminated.
Consider, for example, college-sponsored entertainment. A college or university calendar of events often includes comedians, rock concerts and other festive gatherings organized by the school itself. Entertainment bureaus are eager to work with school administrators to hire out a performer “as seen on….” who will come to campus and deliver an hour of hypnosis and mind reading; or, a comedian who for $6,000 to $10,000 will put on a ninety-minute monologue. Or, for universities with truly deep pockets, administrators can choose a hip-hop or rock music act for $35,000 to $100,000. Entertaining college students is big business. While student activity fees may offset a portion of such events, the school itself pays for the administrative aspects of organizing entertainment, promoting it, and providing the venue and security.
Taking a look beyond the thrill of the event itself, one might ask how many school-sponsored entertainment venues serve as a platform for excessive behavior? Horrific news crossing the wire in recent months reports on unwanted behavior among college students—campus sexual assault, rape, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and a plethora of young adult behaviors that injure and harm. None of these are the result of attending classes or spending time in organic chemistry. They’re the consequence of participating in extracurricular, non-essential (read as: non-educational) events where alcohol and drugs often flow freely, all in the name of socializing, fun and entertainment. There’s no reason a college or university should become an incidental contributor to such behavior.
Of all the non-educational activities that cost colleges money—really big money—sports leads the field. Dr. Ray Watts, the president of the University of Alabama-Birmingham, in announcing the school would cancel the football team at the end of the season, pointed to the $30 million cost of running a football franchise. According to Dr. Watts, “$20 million comes directly from the school — either through student fees or direct subsidies from the overall university budget.” Apparently, an additional $49 million could be needed over the next five years to keep the university competitive with other schools in the conference. Of course Dr. Watts had to reverse his decision to kill football (along with bowling teams and the rifle club) due to public outcry.
Much of the money schools spend to support non-educational activities is driven by the way schools market themselves. A specific marketing message has crept into American post-secondary education in recent decades. It has crept in, much like that unwelcome but exciting “Cat in the Hat” of Dr. Seuss fame—that unexpected visitor who knocked on the front door, then turned two children’s rainy day into near disaster. In the case of higher education, we could argue the intrusion began in 1983 when Robert Topor published Marketing Higher Education: A Practical Guide, a book that borrowed the four P’s of marketing (price, product, promotion, place) from the for-profit sector, then applied those basic principles to the marketing of higher education.
While marketing is certainly essential to the growth and success of any business endeavor, the marketing message coming from of academia has transformed over the years from one that focuses on curriculum and the value of education for its own sake to something entirely different.
Early on, marketers pointed out that a college degree would deliver increased earning power, career opportunities, social mobility and an implied pathway to “The American Dream.” Today, the message has morphed into one that focuses on “the college experience.” The amenities and opulence of the dormitories. The fine cuisine and rich assortment of daily meal choices. The sheer size of the well-equipped wellness center. The entertainment available both on campus and off. The implied opportunities to date and perhaps to mate. And, of course, the glory of collegiate sports.
Among all this messaging, the curriculum and the quality of professors barely make the back page. Today’s message encourages prospective students to make an emotional decision rather than one based on rationally analyzing schools to determine which is most likely to meet the student’s personal objectives. Marketing higher education has become big business. A simple web search reveals blogs, symposia, announcements of annual conventions and millions of entries aimed at improving the effectiveness of post-secondary educational marketing.
In spite of the marketing message, the promise of a Dionysian college lifestyle and lifelong success in the world after college have fallen flat.
Only 39 percent of freshmen graduate in four years, while 41 percent fail to graduate in six. For those who do graduate, nearly half fail to find employment that requires a four-year degree, and many leave academia with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Perhaps most grievous, more than a third of graduates show no improvement in critical thinking in spite of holding a degree. These and other shortcomings of the U.S. higher educational system, documented in a 2015 report by Third Way, affect our business climate and our nation.
A recent study released by the American Association of Colleges and Universities reports that employers do not find college graduates ready for the world of work. Employers expect job applicants to have critical thinking skills, the ability to work in teams and to communicate effectively. Consequently, the Council for the Aid to Education (CAE) has developed a methodology for measuring what employers value: evidence of critical-thinking and written-communication skills, among others.
The CAE finds that 31 percent of students entering college as freshmen do not have the desired skills, and that one in seven fail to acquire them during their four to six years in college. Turning hundreds of thousands of graduates into the workplace without the skills business needs clearly calls for something more than just a free college experience.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducts a worldwide study every few years known as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to evaluate students’ knowledge in math, science and reading. Sixty-five nations participate. The most recent results from 2012 show the U.S. ranked 38th, 28th and 24th, respectively, in those three areas of study. While the students tested are 15 and 16 years old, still in secondary school, the PISA results again illustrate the lackluster effectiveness of our U.S. educational system; all the more reason to return post-secondary education to its core function and to avoid the pervasive focus on non-educational activities and events on American college campuses.
The College Board reported earlier this year the average cost for tuition, room and board at a four-year school now tops $42,000 per year. That’s a tab of $168,000 for a four-year degree. With many students taking six years to complete a degree, the sticker price rises to $250,000. In 2011 the federal government paid $146 billion in financial aid to students, allowing most students and their parents to sidestep the full retail price. Yet the class graduating in 2015 has earned the unwanted distinction of carrying the most student debt in history – more than $35,000 on average.
Higher education is big business, made bigger by specious activities that have little if anything to do with higher education. Sports, entertainment, Greek Society and other questionable aspects of what passes for a college education today have become the fat that must be trimmed from the meat of teaching young adults. If the conservatives don’t want free college and the progressives don’t want campus to become the Church of Rape then, universities must remove sports and popular entertainment off campus and keep focused on their primary function of educating, not entertaining.
Aury J. Pruitt is a nationally syndicated radio host on UrRepublic. He can be followed on Twitter @autry.