Ethical College Admissions: The Shape of the (Lazy) River

Jim Jump considers reports on steep cuts in tuition rates and big investments in amenities.

November 13, 2017
 

It has been said that the first time you do something, it’s innovation, and the second time, tradition.

Is there a similar evolution or progression when colleges or universities adopt new admission policies or campus amenities? Is the first institution a pioneer? Does the addition of a second constitute a trend, and a third a movement? Several pieces of news this fall make those questions pertinent.

First came the announcement earlier this fall by several liberal arts colleges -- Drew, Birmingham-Southern, Sweet Briar, Mills -- that they will be reducing tuition by 20 to 50 percent, adopting a lower tuition/lower aid philosophy. Might that be a sign that the old financial model of increased tuition paired with increased tuition discounts is no longer viable?

On the other end of the spectrum is a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article reporting on the renovation of the student recreation center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The centerpiece of that renovation is a 536-foot-long “lazy river,” a feature inspired by similar leisure pools found at a number of other public universities. And what is the shape of the lazy river (besides a play on words on the title of William Bowen and Derek Bok’s book about the long-term implications of racial diversity in higher education)? Students float and meander through a course that spells out “LSU.”

So what do these developments tell us about the state of higher education? Are the colleges reducing tuition innovative and forward thinking, struggling and desperate, or canaries in the higher education coal mine? Are leisure rivers (the official term, as it is apparently offensive to refer to anything or anyone on a college campus as “lazy”) the successor to climbing walls, the newest weapon in a student amenities arms race?

I would be happy to be wrong about this, but I don’t foresee a line of colleges and universities lowering tuition like the institutions named above. Certainly previous efforts to lower tuition by competitive institutions, such as one instituted several years ago by the University of the South (better known as Sewanee), turned out to be a parade of one, and skeptics saw lowering tuition as a sign of trouble rather than innovative leadership.

All of the colleges listed above in the most recent round of tuition cuts have faced enrollment or financial challenges. Sweet Briar, which announced two years ago that it would close -- only to be revived by the heroic efforts of loyal alumnae who raised $12 million in a matter of weeks -- opened this fall with an enrollment of 335, including 95 new students. Its reduction in tuition is part of an ambitious effort to reset not only its financial model but its curriculum as well.

The question is whether the landscape has changed enough that it’s now time for radical change. When I started my career 40 years ago, there was consensus that the cost of higher education couldn’t possibly continue to rise, and yet costs have blown through perceived ceilings multiple times. But does the high tuition/high aid model still work when the bottom line is $70,000 per year? Is there a threshold where families won’t even apply, no matter how much aid is available?

There are broader issues that probably deserve attention in a separate column. Are the announced reductions in tuition real or a shell game? Most of the reductions are accompanied by a reduction in institutional financial aid. At Drew, for example, tuition will be approximately $10,000 lower, but there will also be $3 million less available in grants and scholarships. The plan for Drew and other institutions is recouping the lost tuition revenue by attracting a larger freshman class through the lower cost. In Drew’s case that means enrolling 530 new students next year, 80 more than this year, while at the same time lowering the discount rate from 59 percent to 49 percent.

I’m willing to bet that net tuition will not decline for most students, or for the university. There is a “ripped from today’s headlines” irony to the plan. Those deriving the most benefit from the reduction are the 5 percent of Drew students who currently receive no aid and can most afford to pay the full freight. That makes the tuition reset sound strangely similar to the “middle-class tax cut” plan put forth by congressional Republicans under the guise of “reform.”

The lazy river is a new twist on a classic dilemma. To what extent is higher education about generating revenue as opposed to dispensing knowledge? Are students customers, and to what length should colleges and universities go to recruit and enroll them in a tough market economy? Should colleges be more concerned with education or with user experience? Those questions underlie institutional decisions ranging from housing to dining to intercollegiate athletics. But do amenities come at the expense of education?

I recently went to homecoming at my alma mater, a small, private liberal arts college. The campus has been transformed in the past decade, and my classmates and I now realize how crappy the place was in the “good old days.” It didn’t matter then, but it matters now. New construction and new programs don’t provide a college with strategic advantage now as much as they allow it to stay in the game.

The question at public universities is whether amenities like the LSU lazy river are a waste of dollars. At LSU the cost was subsidized through student fees rather than tuition, although it can be argued that student fees are forms of tuition under a different veil. Lavish student amenities create challenges for universities lobbying legislatures about the need for additional funding.

But is a lazy river a frill, or part of a university’s health and wellness programming? In the Chronicle article, an LSU official argued that opportunities for play are essential in combating student anxiety and promoting mental health. The lazy river isn’t frivolous, it’s therapeutic.

The contrast between colleges cutting tuition and public universities building lazy rivers illustrates the increasing divide between rich and poor within higher education. I have had parents ask me when admission to college will become “easier.” My answer is that it already has, with the exception of a small number of institutions that continue to have record numbers of applications every year. The rich are getting richer, and everyone else is falling behind.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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