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April 19, 2023

The Amenities Arms Race

College marketing today has focused heavily on athletics and amenities to land new students, spurring what we believe to be an `Amenities Arms Race` among them. President Merkle discusses how these things have become a significant contributor to the skyrocketing tuition rates.

Another significant contributor to skyrocketing tuition has been the amenities arms race – the nonstop contest to build, build, build, and the expectation that our college campuses provide a package of resort-like amenities. I remember at an early meeting of college presidents, hearing one president say to the crowd that if there wasn’t a crane on his campus, he didn’t feel like he was doing his job. That seemed like a bizarre way to measure success, but I soon came to understand that college presidents keep personal scores based on the number and size of the buildings that they build. Now, on the one hand, you need buildings to house your college. I have no objection to the president who is raising money to build classrooms for his students. That is, in fact, what I spend much of my own time doing. But the building craze on college campuses has become an end in itself.

Colleges are less interested in building simple lecture halls and are now consumed with building a sprawling complex of resort-like facilities. Climbing walls, lazy rivers, hot tubs, and various spa facilities have become the expected accessories for the American college student. And the most important amenity of all for the American college campus is the football team. I cringe to introduce these criticisms here because I actually love competitive sports quite a lot and believe that they can bring a great deal to the educational process. That said, college sports in America are a complete mess and have had a disastrous effect on the quality of college education by taking on a ridiculously inflated significance. For instance, in my home state of Idaho, do you know who is the top-paid state employee? The answer is the head coach of the Boise State University football team, who makes $1.4 million annually. The coach literally makes twice the salary of the next guy down the list of highest-paid State of Idaho employees. The BSU football coach is considered twice as valuable as any other state employee in Idaho. And that next guy down on the list happens to be the head coach of the Boise State University basketball team. But at least the basketball coach makes almost twice that of the next guy down on the list, which would be BSU’s president.[1]

On the one hand, if you know anything about BSU football, this salary actually makes sense. Give credit where credit is due. The 2007 Fiesta Bowl game against the Oklahoma Sooners was an undeniable thing of beauty. And so I understand why whoever is going to coach this team would rate such a salary. But it only makes sense if you ignore a lot of nonsense first. Why is an athletic team given such lopsided preference at the college? A preference far greater than any academic program? The simple answer is that the college football team is more important than the academic program.

From a financial perspective, with the exception of a very small handful of football powerhouses, colleges lose money on their athletic programs every year. So what is the motivation for keeping these money-sucking programs afloat? The truth is that, considered on their own, the athletic programs make no sense. But considered from a marketing/recruitment perspective, college athletics are ridiculously effective.

"It is a sad truth that larger American universities are, more often than not, evaluated more by the success of their football and basketball teams than by the quality of their academic offerings."

This is known as the “Flutie Effect,” named after Doug Flutie and his Hail Mary pass in 1984 that led Boston College to an unlikely victory over the University of Miami and a brief surge in applicants in the following years. Similarly, when Gonzaga’s basketball team made an unexpected appearance in the Elite Eight in 1999, a struggling recruitment department was suddenly overwhelmed with applications. And the previously mentioned BSU victory at the 2007 Fiesta Bowl resulted in a surge of Boise State University applications along with a palpable sense in north Idaho, where the University of Idaho once reigned supreme, that the mojo had departed and headed south to BSU. It is a sad truth that larger American universities are, more often than not, evaluated more by the success of their football and basketball teams than by the quality of their academic offerings.

While the Flutie Effect plagues our larger Division I schools, there is another phenomenon, one quite opposite the “Flutie Effect,” which I think plagues our smaller Division III colleges. I’ll call it the “Rudy Effect,” partly because of the 1993 movie and partly because I’m trying to be clever and rhyme with “Flutie.” When a small college like my own New Saint Andrews College wants to grow, the single most successful growth strategy is simply to add athletic teams. By doing that, you are able to capitalize on the crushed hopes of all the high school kids who spent their high school years dreaming, not of being a college student, but of being a college athlete, who, nevertheless, was not good enough to be recruited by a school of any significance. These students will enroll in your college with little to no scholarship money purely for the chance to live out their dream of being a college “athlete.” Of course, in order to keep these students enrolled, the colleges have to significantly dilute the academic integrity of their program, as the administration makes an unspoken pact with these new recruits that, if put in words, would go something like this: “I’ll call you an athlete if you’ll call this an education.” The whole thing is a sad and unfunny joke. But the pull of the dream of playing for a college team is so incredibly strong that these prospective students find it impossible to resist the siren call of a free duffle bag with a team logo on it.

Now almost all of these college athletic programs are losing money if we consider them purely by themselves – the Division I teams that ride the ebb and flow of the “Flutie Effect” on their enrollment, and the Division III schools that capitalize on the “Rudy Effect” to fill half their student body with tuition-paying “athletes.” They are all being supported by inflated tuition revenue. So why are colleges supporting these money-sucking programs? Because the existence of these programs increases recruitment substantially. Students will take advantage of the increased tuition capacity created by federal money in order to be at a school with a prominent D I athletic program or in order to be an “athlete” at a less than-prominent D III school.      

"...these things should serve education rather than the education serving these things."

And so, when a prospective student visits a university, his visit will be dominated by touring the various extracurricular amenities and athletic spectacles, none of which will contribute to his education in any substantive way. But since these amenities are what will win him over as an applicant to the school, the school will put a great deal of money into building them, passing the bill on to the hapless freshmen coming onto campus with pockets made deep by borrowed money.

As I have already mentioned, I love athletic competition, and I can also appreciate the need to build campus buildings. But these things should serve education rather than the education serving these things. And the surplus of tuition revenue, made possible by federal money, has allowed American colleges to become distracted by those things that are not really at the center of their mission.