US: Selling universities as resorts affects quality

With a 30-year career as an instructor and administrator, I am prompted to agree with Richard Vedder's recent New York Times observation that we are seeing "the country-clubisation of the American university". While aggregate spending on instruction continues to decline, spending on administrative overheads and amenities to sustain enrolments in a competitive market increases.

Vedder notes: "A lot of it is for great athletic centres and spectacular student union buildings. In the zeal to get students, they are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities."

Complementing Vedder's observation, the nation's popular and higher education press has been reporting research findings on and accompanying pundit assessments of the decline in college students' study habits. The nation's students are not spending as much time on their studies as in earlier decades.

Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks' recent report, "The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from half a century of time use data", in The Review of Economics and Statistics, documents an alarming decline in student study time in the period from 1961 to 2003.

Their findings bolster the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Learning (NAAL) findings and the subsequent steady stream of research reports and commentaries on the aggregate decline of student learning in American colleges and universities. If students are studying less, ergo they are learning less.

Pundits have produced an array of explanations. Their fingers point in many directions, both internal and external.

There is the ever-popular explanation that each new entering class is increasingly ill-prepared. In fact, there has not been an acceptable academic level in a class since the commentator's.

At the other extreme, some say that students are more technically proficient and hence more efficient in their study habits. Google and the internet in general, to the dismay of many, have replaced trips to the library; hence, students save both travel and search time. Unfortunately, NAAL's report of a steady decline in graduate proficiencies does not support this Pollyanna explanation.

In the middle, there are the apologists with two superficially antagonistic yet complementary claims. One states that students have too many responsibilities, family, work and other sources of distraction that adversely compete with study time. The other, "just leave me alone or don't ask too much and I won't tell on you", has become an increasingly popular explanation.

In the age of widespread student evaluation of faculty classroom performance, some believe that instructors who do not demand too much can expect better evaluations. In a 2009 report, the National Survey of Student Engagement cites 62% of college students who studied 15 hours a week or less yet earned primarily A and B grades.

Finally, others carp that students simply do not know how to study. If college would only teach them how to study, their time on tasks would miraculously rebound. The former may have more credence, while the latter is nothing more than a coded justification for more money.

While each of the preceding explanations may have some basis in truth, I suggest that US colleges and universities should look within. My cursory visits to various institutions' web pages, tier one and below, public or non-profit, suggests a conveniently overlooked contributing factor.

US colleges and universities no longer primarily portray themselves as teaching and learning communities. Sadly, their web pages, press releases and print materials portray resort-like destinations with luxurious dormitories and recreational facilities. Little is said about the quality of the academic programmes and what value-added can be expected in return for ever-increasing tuition fees.

US institutions have entered an amenities war. Gourmet food services, private baths, double beds, fitness centres and spas are featured. If an institution does not have a climbing wall, it is falling behind the competition.

MSNBC reports that Sarah English, director of housing and residential life at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York "...believes universities have no choice but to upgrade housing. Her school recently added upscale townhouses for students". English's remarks are akin to a follow-the-pack or the-devil-made-me-do-it rationalisation.

With this emphasis on amenities, our colleges and universities are unconsciously telling prospective applicants that academics and the requisite study time are at best secondary. By default, applicants are forced to shop around for the best amenity package consistent with their institutional aspirations and parental resources.

Their low expectations regarding academic rigour are set before their application is filed. If students enter college with that impression it should come as no surprise that the call of the climbing walls and other distractions trumps studying time.

US institutions are marketing four-year vacations rather than quality academic programming in preparation for adult responsibilities. As we shakily enter the 2008 recession recovery period, many higher education critics are clamouring for across-the-board budget cuts.

While I am not suggesting a return to hair shirts, reprioritising our budget allocations and marketing initiatives should produce some savings and refocus on the fundamental reasons for applying to a college or university.

* William Patrick Leonard is vice-dean of SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Korea.