That college costs now more than ever is a much-discussed topic. There are a lot of reasons for this. The student loan industry increasing demand, for instance, and larger and larger segments of the job market requiring degrees for positions even when the nature of the position does not necessarily warrant it. People can spend $50-100k just to jump through some hoops just so that they can tell potential employers that they jumped through some hoops. Budget-strapped states also often find that they have less money laying around that they can kick in to reduce tuition.

One of the causes of the rising tide of expense, though, is that the goalposts of “the college experience” are ever-moving.

When I was attending Southern Tech University, there were basically three sets of dorms.

  • The Old Houses (aka the Polyhedron) was a group of old, smaller dormitories with suites that share bathrooms reserved primarily for honors students and athletes.
  • The Sauron Center was two towers with significantly smaller rooms and hall bathrooms.
  • Lastly, there was Sotech Plaza, apartment-style dorms intended primarily for graduate students.
  • There was a fourth set called Southern Pines, much like Sotech Plaza, but the cash-strapped university handed it over to private developers.

When I was a student, the plan was to expand the Sauron Towers from two to four. The University made it a priority to get more students living on campus and the Towers were very space-efficient as far as that goes. While I was attending, the plan shifted to adding only one tower, then two short towers, then scotched altogether.

Since then, they’ve been adding more and more dormitories at the upper end of things to accompany the Pines and the Plaza. Cynics believe that they are doing this because this type of housing brings in the most revenue. Boosters say that in order to attract the best students you have to have the nicest facilities. If a student has the option of staying at Sauron North or some posh digs at Delosa Western University, they’re going to choose the latter. And if they’re looking primarily to save money, they’re not necessarily the students that the university is most enthusiastic about anyway.

But what seems clear is that among middle class parents, for all of the complaints about the rising costs of college, a whole lot of them want these nicer dorms. They want their kids to go to the school with the extravagant football program and the super-duper fitness center. In short, a lot of parents are paying more for college because they want the kinds of things that extra money buys.

This, of course, leads to an arms race for these students. Southern Tech wants to compete with the University of Delosa for students. Delosa Polytechnic wants to compete with Southern Tech for students while Sotech absolutely, positively does not want to be lumped with Del Poly. Before parents know it, their options are to send their kid to a university with aspirations (and the expenses that come along with it) or resign themselves to sending their kid to colleges without the profiles that these schools have. Southern Tech University East (“Stuie“) is a very affordable college in the Southern Tech system, but a degree from Stuie won’t carry as much weight and you’re less likely to meet the kinds of people there that are going to help your career.

I’m not sure what can be done about this. Some suggest that curbing the availability of student loans would be a start. I’m not positive that will help all that much, though. Most of the people driving these costs upwards are the ones that can afford to go to college without the student loans. The result would be that college would become less affordable, which on one hand may be a good thing for would-be Comparative Folk Dancing majors and people without the intelligence or wherewithal to graduate, but would be a bad thing for those that are trying to move up the economic ladder and have the talent and drive to do so.

Inspiration: Are Pricey Dorms 10 Times Better? Housing options offer the easiest way to cut college costs (USN&WR)

Category: School

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5 Responses to Dorm Creep

  1. Peter says:

    It’s hard for me to grasp the fact that some colleges charge different amounts for different quality dorms. The Small Northeastern Liberal Arts College that I attended had dorms of vastly different quality, yet charged the same amount for all types. Naturally enough, the dorm where I lived freshman year was notorious for being the worst on campus.

  2. Linus says:

    We visited the Purdue campus (my wife’s alma mater) over the holidays, and all of the new construction had me thinking about how the fancy new dorms must be a factor in the rising costs of going to college. I don’t know what schools are thinking when they throw so much money after improved dorms (my alma mater did it too, a couple of years after I left), but I’m sure you’re right that it’s one of the only “visible” improvements parents can get for their money, so maybe it factors in more than it deserves.

    Still, though, I have to believe that there are a lot of students, parents, and schools out there that place a quality educational experience first and see all of this for what it is: window dressing. If school A puts tens of millions into new dorms and school B puts it towards more and better instructors, school B’s academic ratings are more likely to rise. That dynamic may not be the one that’s been dominant for the last decade, but it’s got to swing back to some degree at some point.

  3. ecco says:

    My small northeastern liberal arts college also didn’t discriminate between dorms due to price. However, they rationed the system by putting freshman and sophomores in the worst dorms. Also, the dorms aren’t air conditioned, which still isn’t very fun in september.

  4. trumwill says:

    I’m not sure if there ever was a price difference between the Old Houses and the Sauron Center. That seemed to be determined by other factors and since at first they wanted to build more towers I’m guessing they focused on efficiency because it was all the same to them financially. But the ones that were built after those two have I’m pretty sure had an eye towards charging more.

    I am not as optimistic as Linus primarily because there is no way of really gauging which universities are the best. So even if they spend money on better professors, I’m not sure how much it would help attract the better students they need to improve their ratings. There was a great article on this subject recently. I’ll have to see if I can track it down.

  5. David Alexander says:

    a whole lot of them want these nicer dorms

    I can’t fault them for wanting nicer dorms. Sharing bathrooms with an entire floor comes across as rather crude by first world standards, and sharing a small room with somebody that I don’t know is rather silly to me. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t want anything to do with living on campus along with the provision of questionable institutional food three times a day.

    I suspect that I’m currently coming across as a spoiled snot…

    one of the only “visible” improvements parents can get for their money

    I remember reading some time ago that students tend to apply to more schools now than in earlier eras, so I suspect schools are using dorms as a means of standing out in a relatively crowded field of potential schools. If you have several relatively closely ranked schools, the dorm may be what separates the schools in terms of attractiveness to students.

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