The shiny objects arms race
Letter to the Editor | Monday, March 26, 2018
After I read the suspiciously positive reviews of the Duncan Student Center that have appeared in this publication, I was somewhat frustrated. The primary reason I am frustrated is not that the Duncan Center was not built particularly well — though they did build a gym two stories above rooms that are largely made of glass, which is now causing obviously predictable problems. No, the main cause of my frustration was essentially none of the articles made any mention of the $400 million price tag for a building that has very little to do with academics.
To put it bluntly, for Notre Dame to build a $400 million student center while the cost of tuition goes up by 3.8 percent in the same year is a problem. This is not a Notre Dame problem, but a problem that exists across the country.
The Notre Dame website states, the “Duncan Student Center will help to fulfill the student center needs and add to the University’s thriving, decentralized student center model.” This buzzword-filled explanation is nonsense — the University realistically has more space than it knows what to do with. The real justification for building the student center is that they are trying to participate in the same shiny objects arms race occurring across the country that is currently driving up tuition costs at rates much higher than the rate of inflation. According to Forbes, “The overall consumer price index has risen 115 percent while the college education inflation rate has risen nearly 500 percent.” The justification for many of the universities, most likely including Notre Dame, is that it is a smart business decision. As one University of Michigan study stated, “many high income students are willing to pay for these amenities.” There is a major gap in logic here: not for profit schools are not businesses. They are schools, where the primary purpose should be education and advancing human knowledge, not becoming as large and wealthy as possible. A school should not increase the cost of education just to attract a few more amenities-obsessed students. It is also worth it to note that, according to the same University of Michigan study, students attracted by such amenities tended to be lower academically performing students.
There will no doubt be some rebuttals from the ND administration if posed with some of these questions.
First among these rebuttals will be that a lot of increased spending has gone to financial aid and amply covers the increased cost of tuition for those who need assistance. This point is absolute nonsense. Tell almost any middle-class student that needs-based financial aid truly covers need and they will laugh in your face. There is also data that unambiguously defeats the argument that need-based aid works. Clearly, the increase in tuition across the country does not significantly get offset by financial aid. A second rebuttal put forward by schools is that the money for the Duncan Center came from donations, not tuition, and so the two are unrelated. This is at least partially true, but there is an easy solution to this problem — start asking people for money specifically for making the school function and to lower tuition cost rather than to build shiny new toys. Even though the total amount of money donated may go down slightly as a consequence, Notre Dame is still a fundraising megalith. I am sure that if the primary fundraising goal overwhelmingly shifts from paying for new shiny objects to decreasing cost of tuition, said tuition will go down.
We are now at a point in this country where a recent Pew poll clocked the percent of Americans that think college is worth the cost is at a record low at fifty percent. It is therefore shameful for Notre Dame to continue to raise costs and in turn heap student loan debt on the middle class. It is clearly not sustainable to continue to spend so haphazardly on non-essential items. There is a fairly clear alternative: schools from essentially every other nation in the world. For instance, St. Andrews, a fairly high caliber school in Scotland, costs around 1800 euro a year for EU residents, 9000 euro for those from England and around 20,000 euro a year for those from other countries, including those from the US. For those doing the math at home, this comes out to less than a third of the cost for in-state residents. Yes, this school does benefit from state funding, but it also does not spend extravagant amounts of money on shiny new toys every year. Notre Dame needs to step away from the vanity-driven rat race of competing with elite colleges with their amenities and start focusing their energy on lowering tuition, the primary problem with higher education today.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.