Critics bash climbing walls–but that's not why tuition is high

Why higher education student facilities are back in the news

Recent speeches by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Gov. Chris Christie (R-New Jersey) brought the argument regarding excessive infrastructure spending back into the spotlight this month, Kellie Woodhouse reports for Inside Higher Ed.

The two politicians criticized spending by colleges on student amenities such as dorms and athletic centers featuring climbing walls and lazy rivers. But the colleges say these luxuries improve yield and result in higher revenues.

A recreation arms race now underway at some schools

About $1.7 billion was spent on construction and renovations for at least 157 recreational projects at 92 U.S. colleges in 2012, according to NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation.

At large public institutions, investments in recreational facilities do translate to increases in enrollment—but that is not the case at other types of schools, says James Kadamus, VP for college asset adviser firm Sightlines.

However, funding "consumption" preferences may improve enrollment numbers of students who are not looking at elite colleges, according to a 2013 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

"The symbolism of this is worse than the reality of it" says Jane Wellman, a higher education finance expert at the College Futures Foundation.

Recreational amenities may make a good political target, but they are not the real drivers of tuition increases, says David Feldman, a College of William & Mary economics professor who has researched the subject.

"The bigger problem that higher education faces today, at the public side, is cuts in state spending," Feldman argues. "Lazy rivers are only a tiny piece of the costs."

And as Woodhouse points out, both Christie's alma mater—and the school his daughter attends—have climbing walls (Woodhouse, Inside Higher Ed, 6/15).

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