The Higher Education Arms Race
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The Higher Education Arms Race

August 20, 2013

Amanda Miller

Many of us have fantasies of going back to college: the idea of reliving our youth with the added benefit of being older and wiser. However, as many of you know, in the last decade there’s been an amazing higher education arms race. The college learning environment is now pretty different from what it once was. As an avid rock climber, the idea of having a climbing gym that’s a stone’s throw away from my dorm room sounds like an awesome fantasy of college life. But this over-the-top imaginary idea has become an all-too-common reality.

Many of us have fantasies of going back to college: the idea of reliving our youth with the added benefit of being older and wiser.  However, as many of you know, in the last decade there’s been an amazing higher education arms race.  The college learning environment is now pretty different from what it once was.  As an avid rock climber, the idea of having a climbing gym that’s a stone’s throw away from my dorm room sounds like an awesome fantasy of college life.  But this over-the-top imaginary idea has become an all-too-common reality.

There are several reasons this is happening. Firstly, there’s the sticker price. Colleges are feeling increasingly pressured to show their “value” to parents – they want you to see what you “really get” for those expensive tuition checks (as though a smart, competent college graduate and a degree to hang on the wall isn’t enough).  The other major factor is the scaling back of state funding.  Schools have been burdened by this trend and increasingly have to make up the difference in hard costs.

However if you’ve ever visited a college campus recently, you can see that a lot of what’s going on is with an eye towards helping the school’s branding and marketing. Colleges are doing whatever they can to offer the most start-of-the art amenities to their students because they believe it’s the best way to attract the best and the brightest.  The illusion is that this offers more value for money, however in reality the price for these bells and whistles is passed on to the student via higher tuition fees.  There was a great podcast recently on NPR’s Marketplace about this. In the spot, Tom Diehl, Director of Recreational Sports at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, is quoted as saying, “People talk about how college gyms are becoming more like fancy health clubs. They’re wrong. This is way nicer than any health club I’ve seen.”

There’s no question that higher education is a valuable investment and can be well-worth the debt students incur. However, there are a lot of indicators suggesting this bubble – which has reached levels of ridiculousness – is finally starting to pop.  Explanations include the recession’s financial crunch, the end of Boomer children graduating from High School, and the simple idea that people are finally coming to their senses.  But as the economy is still not on solid footing, teenagers and their parents are looking for alternative and less expensive solutions, including community colleges, online classes and virtual schools. This could be a wise financial choice for many people to consider and I’m sure their popularity will continue to increase.

Of course, expectations will have to shift too. The challenge of those online programs is they don’t have a cool gym.  I’m not sure about you, but I would rather take an online class, save the money for the fancy gym, and go rock climbing on some actual rock.

Amanda Miller

Senior Director, Qualitative Research

Amanda’s natural curiosity is contagious, and it’s that very curiosity that enables her to effortlessly translate research insights into high-impact strategies that deliver real, tangible...

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