Posts Tagged “residential college”

Fighting Back Against Taj Mahal Consumerism in Higher Education

The first indications are in on how the academic year is likely to go. In the pomp and ceremony that surrounds the opening of the school year, deep concerns emerge behind-the-scenes in all but the best endowed institutions as the numbers come in. There are no alternative facts to hide what an institution will face. It’s the “is what it is” moment for America’s higher education.

Colleges and universities have known what the composition of their incoming classes will be since last May when a fairly complete freshman profile emerged. They completed summer renovations on facilities and monitored their multi-year building projects. And they have matched their staff, especially faculty, to the size and needs of the incoming and returning student bodies to keep their student/teacher ratios in line.

But the late summer presents more statistical evidence of what is likely to happen in the coming academic year. The most telling evidence is financial:

  • What was the summer melt — those who intend to enroll but don’t arrive — of students like?
  • Did the freshman class meet the enrollment projections?
  • Did the Office of Financial Aid meet or exceed its budget?
  • What will federal and state support look like, especially at public institutions?
  • Were capital projects delivered on time and on budget?

Financial Questions Dominate College Leadership Discussions

Since most colleges are so heavily tuition-dependent, these financial questions increasingly dominate senior leadership discussions each fall.

The cold facts are that colleges are capital-, technology-, and labor-intensive institutions. There is very little discretion available to them in an annual budget.

And the numbers will likely confirm soon that net tuition revenue is essentially flat for yet another year. Further, many of them, including some very good schools, did not meet their internal enrollment projections.

The financial model at tuition-dependent colleges and universities that support their people, programs, and facilities no longer works.

Clearly, higher education is going through a process in which it must reevaluate how to pay the bills. There are ways to put the financial pieces together differently, drive efficiencies and cost savings, and look to outside partnerships to reevaluate how to make the educational enterprise work without destroying the historical foundation upon which colleges and universities are built.

Student Residential “Palaces” Symbolize Excesses of College Spending

One example is the Taj Mahal residence hall. These are often spectacular facilities with amenities that exceed anything that most students – even those sharing apartment rents – will be able to afford after graduation. The “build it and they will come” theory of facilities design and enhancements has serious drawbacks. Its presence draws attention to the inadequacy of the current financial model.

These residence halls symbolize the excesses of American higher education, especially the failure of a college to live within the means that would dampen tuition sticker price increases.

The facts are that it is unlikely that higher education institutions need to put so much cash into development of these student residential palaces. If they do, private developers should bear the cost of their construction, assuming that they can maintain quality and create efficiencies that a college is unable to do using in-house expertise to moderate the cost.

In fact, in many cases colleges should be moving out of the student “hotel” business, using a progressive redesign of their student life program to achieve broader institutional strategic objectives that go beyond these luxurious student residences.

Colleges must also find a way to diminish the need both to treat fully depreciated student housing as a cash cow to shore up their general programming and re-capture much of their upper division students for whom they may not currently provide housing.

Focus on What Students Truly Need in Residence Hall

There are larger questions drawn from these trends. When is more just more?  And, what do students actually need?

Let’s assume that students need a residence that has decent square footage and is well-maintained. They should be clean, have adequate electrical capacity for their growing number of technology-related products, quiet HVAC for heating and air conditioning, and private or semi-private bathrooms, depending on the configuration of the facility.

That’s enough. They do not need in-house pools, exercise facilities, cafes, or in-suite  laundry facilities. That’s too much.

Technology, Connectivity Top List of Student Needs

In fact, if a college or university thinks strategically about what tops the list of students needs, they are likely to hear that it is technology – and specifically, connectivity.

The ability to connect to the outside world is the great leveler for colleges and universities that break down the geographic, social, and cultural barriers that all institutions face in different ways.

This is an area of continuing concern on college campuses.  It is a particularly serious problem on rural campus where social and cultural options are more limited. Technology is a large, recurring expense for most colleges, especially since demands shift and technology changes with amazing speed.

Solution Will Require Partnerships

The solution will require new and imaginative partnerships among colleges, business and industry and their providers. It may be that fewer dollars – or perhaps more private partnership dollars – can be put into non-core, non-academic facilities like residence halls to pay for other expenses like technology.

Whatever the solution, colleges must think strategically by looking to the consumer demands of their students and less to the mindless “rock wall” amenities of their competitors.


Student Life, Academics Synergy Needed for Residential Colleges’ Future

As enrollment continues to soften at four-year residential colleges, college administrators must increasingly justify the philosophies behind and the costs associated with them.

It’s a sad commentary when colleges must defend what was once perceived to be the best justification for students to attend them.

The older argument fell along these lines:

  • Attendance at a four-year residential college offers students the luxury to explore their interests, grow in maturity, and broaden their horizons.
  • Residential colleges impose expectations on students. They must learn to live together. They must utilize the dozens of student-organized clubs and activities that can shape their extracurricular experiences to become well educated, committed, and productive citizens.

In short, the residential college supports the academic interests to provide a comprehensive education for their students.

Indeed, many residential colleges do just that. They have a clear focus, mission statement, and governing and operational philosophy. They offer a wide variety of programming and link their residential experience to in-class philosophy and practice.

But as the market softens, there are growing problems with how residential colleges will develop against a backdrop of the mounting pressures on them.

The first pressure is internal. While many colleges have a respectable sense of self, for countless others the student life programs that shape the residential college experience are often a mishmash “cookie cutter” hodgepodge drawn from peer and aspirant experiences that are not explicitly linked to their college’s strategic direction or even a precise program fit.

A review of most residential college literature, for example, seldom produces a clear statement of mission or how students translate their first efforts at interdependence to independence.

What is the seamless path that prepares them to move psychologically, socially, and culturally into the workforce after graduation?

Second, colleges must be judged ultimately by the buy-in their programs receive, especially from students, staff, and faculty. At many colleges, student life programs operate quite separately from the academic programs they should support.

Further, student life professionals lack the level of respect that the faculty enjoys. They are decidedly junior players in the campus pecking order. Senior administrators often see them less as developmental agents and more as some combination of truant officer and baby sitter.

These problems extend to student life professionals’ relationship with the students. In this regard, campus culture can play a large role in how residential life develops.

More progressive campuses involve students in residential life, including in critical areas like discipline. Progressive campuses often have honor codes and student disciplinary boards. But these processes require that campus administrators share power with students. This act can translate into a teachable moment for students on the best-run campuses. And it can also foster the trust and transparency that make good residential life programs better.

Third, the cost of residential life plays directly into the impact it has on campus. A good residential life program is expensive. Colleges that do not take a hard look at their programs also run the risk of adding programs to ensure comprehensiveness while seldom rejecting what no longer works. The result is that many colleges run a much larger offering of programs than is needed. Students should be able to start new programs, especially when the costs of the proposed program is prioritized and matched to the available resources. But in the end a residential life program is a rationing tool.

As such, residential life administrators can support any program that they choose but not all of the programs that students want. This is where strategy comes into play.

There must be a clear sense of direction, an ability to execute and assess, and a strong connection to the academic programs to determine whether the teachable moment provided by residence life staff meets the academic standards espoused by the college. There must be synergy between student life and the academic programs in a residential setting.

The best educational strategies balance people, programs, and facilities. A residential life program is also an open invitation to intersect the needs of the college with those of the community. In a fully integrated strategy, the social, cultural, wellness, human rights, and philanthropic initiatives supported by residential life programs are grounded in the neighborhood, town, and region. They share common purpose and direction. They avoid duplicating facilities.

In an era of diminishing resources, a robust residential life program is essential to a college’s identity. But if its purpose is unclear, its detractors will take advantage to open residence life to debilitating cutbacks.

The solution begins with a deeper commitment to the four-year residential college. It starts with a reaffirmation of why the residential learning experience defines them and who and what they teach. Their renewed commitment must establish metrics that shape each of the four years in a student’s life, linking the programs to critical outcomes like retention and graduation rates.

A residential college is an expensive way to educate students. Yet for many students, it is the transformative experience of their lives. Its advocates must shepherd its programs into responsible and cost-effective alignment to demonstrate to families as consumers — without apology and with considerable pride — that “you get what you pay for.”