Facilities

Heard About the Facilities Arms Race? One Professor Says You Should Be Skeptical

July 18, 2017

U. of North Carolina at Wilmington
Kevin R. McClure of the U. of North Carolina at Wilmington: "We sometimes have a tendency to conflate amenities with any type of new construction. And I don’t think that’s a fair way of looking at new construction projects on campus, some of which are necessary and include very few bells and whistles."
Kevin R. McClure has read a lot of news articles about a facilities "arms race" in higher education that is frequently blamed for driving up colleges’ tuition prices and making them more selective. In fact, he has started a list of such articles and recently wrote a 1,900-word blog post questioning the assumption that such a thing exists and how to measure it.

One problem with that assumption is that there isn’t really any clear definition of what we mean by "amenities." And there’s little data confirming that such a competition is really taking place on campuses, or the extent to which the phenomenon may be making college more expensive, says Mr. McClure, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

To find out more, The Chronicle talked to Mr. McClure about his post and what had inspired it. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q. Why is it so hard to define amenities?

A. We sometimes have a tendency to conflate amenities with any type of new construction. And I don’t think that’s a fair way of looking at new construction projects on campus, some of which are necessary and include very few bells and whistles. Sometimes we say, "Oh, that new residence hall is an example of the amenities arms race." Well, a residence hall by itself isn’t really an amenity. There might be certain features within that building that we think of as amenities that go above and beyond what we think of as a requirement for housing students.

Q. Are there other data that we could use as a proxy for determining whether colleges are spending too much on campus construction?

A. There is some proxy data available; for example, a company called Sightlines keeps a database of campus-construction projects. Of course, the problem with that, as I said earlier, is that it’s assuming that construction projects are the same as amenities. And so we would just have to understand that, by using data like that, we get an imperfect picture and probably capture more spending on construction than on amenities.

The way that data has been used in the past is that they’ve looked at construction projects that are academic in nature, compared with projects that are nonacademic in nature. The way the popular media has been writing about this is to talk about amenities in the context of both academic and nonacademic spaces — for instance, a study lounge that includes amenities or a library that people might think is too ostentatious. That’s an example of the fuzziness around this notion of amenities.

Q. What’s the problem with connecting rising tuition with the costs of campus construction? Even if a building is paid for with donations, there are continuing costs of maintenance.

A. The question itself shows how we are just unable to disentangle campus construction from amenities. And so, for me, those are two different questions: The extent to which campus construction contributes to costs which may be passed on to students and the extent to which amenities may be similarly contributing to costs that get passed on to students.

“We are assuming there is a connection between amenities and the price that students pay, but we don't have evidence to support that assumption.”
We are assuming there is a connection between amenities and the price that students pay, but we don’t have evidence to support that assumption. In fact, what little evidence we do have suggests the opposite. It says these amenities are easy targets; they often provide poor optics, but when we look at the totality of college costs, they amount to a pretty small share that students would be expected to shoulder.

Another complexity is that some of the things we think of as amenities, students themselves vote on to pay for. So students have made the decision to levy a fee on themselves because they want a new amenity brought to campus.

I hope that we as higher-education researchers dig into these questions. Some of the research I’ve done looks at campus climate for affordability, and one of the things that we show in our paper [forthcoming in August in the Journal of Student Financial Aid] is that some of the physical features of a campus can still have an effect on students’ ability to afford college, in the sense that they may contribute to lots of small costs that add up for a student who’s on the margins financially. An example would be a campus convenience store that may charge an exorbitant amount for milk or produce.

So I think there is still possibly a connection between college affordability and campus amenities. We just don’t have enough direct evidence of it and need to do more research.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.