Water Parks and Gourmet Dining—Why It’s Time for Some Much-Needed Transparency in Higher Ed

If college’s main purpose is education, you would think the vast majority of employees on a school’s payroll would be teachers. But at public and private colleges and universities, “non-academic” employees now outnumber full-time, tenure-track faculty members two-to-one

This hiring disparity is just one symptom of a much larger problem—unaccountable college administrations are spending absurd amounts of money on staff and projects that have little to do with education.

This kind of spending doesn’t improve students’ learning experiences or job prospects. But it does make college even less affordable.

So…What Is It You Do? 

Since the 1990s, the cost of a degree has doubled. And it’s hardly a coincidence that the number of private and state school employees that never set foot in a classroom has doubled as well.

Schools added over 500,000 non-teaching employees between 1987 and 2012. At colleges and universities, there are now 73 administrators per 1,000 students, up from 53 per 1,000 in 1987.

At the same time, schools have cut full-time faculty. In 1987, one-third of teachers were part-time faculty or teaching assistants; by 2012, they accounted for half.

Up a Lazy River Without a Paddle

Colleges and universities hiring hundreds of thousands of people who have never given a lecture, handed out a pop quiz, or worn a blazer with elbow patches isn’t the only thing making tuition so expensive. Flip on the TV on any given Saturday during the fall and you’ll see your tuition dollars at work.

In 2014, students at the 32 universities in the five wealthiest college sports conferences shelled out a combined $125.5 million to fund sports programs. Where does that money go? To give you an idea, in 2010 the University of Michigan spent $226 million to renovate The Big House, where the Wolverines play. 

Proponents of spending for collegiate athletic projects commonly perpetuate the myth that college sports are a cash cow, but according to the American Council on Education, “most colleges subsidize their athletics programs, sometimes to startling degrees.” In fact, only seven athletics programs at public universities broke even or had net operating income on athletics from 2005-2009, according to data from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

But sports aren’t the only non-academic spending school administrators love dumping millions into. They also love building resort-style recreation centers, dorms and other student life buildings so the appearance of the campus matches its hefty price tag. Annual spending on construction projects has doubled since 1995, jumping to $11 billion by 2013. 

The University of Iowa blew $53 million on a campus rec center featuring a lazy river. Texas Tech apparently thought they could do better and built an entire water park. California State University, Long Beach, dropped $70 million on a wellness center with sci-fi-level hand scanners for security. Because, you know, keys are so last century.

Time for Some Oversight

For a long time now, university administrators have been free to do what they wanted. With little oversight from state governments and little transparency for taxpayers, they’ve run wild. Now, students and taxpayers must foot the bill for rock climbing walls and high ropes courses. 

It’s time to shine some light on the process. Public universities should be required to show how they’re spending their money and bring added transparency to their board meetings. Students and taxpayers both deserve to know where their hard-earned money is going. 

In addition, public universities should be required to report on student performance while they are at the university and post-graduation. Too many young adults are lured to college with promises of high-paying jobs and quality educations, and leave with neither. 

High school students exploring their options for college should have access to the best information possible, and public colleges and universities should be required to publish more actionable information.

Armed with that information, students can decide for themselves if they’d rather attend a school with a surf-and-turf dining hall or unlimited free tanning (yes, both of those are real things), or pursue an education that will help them land a good job with little or no debt.

Author Generation Opportunity

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