Editorial: Colleges forced to become businesses

By Pitt News Staff

$428,000 can buy a University many things. Supplies, research equipment, professors and,… $428,000 can buy a University many things. Supplies, research equipment, professors and, apparently, light ribbons.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, California University of Pennsylvania, part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), decided to include a light ribbon as part of the 2009 construction of its new convocation center.

The light ribbon, an electronic light display that spirals up a large tower structure, adds an attractive touch of flair to the new building. It complements nicely more than $586,000 worth of audio, visual, and camera equipment purchased by the university for various campus athletic and student buildings in recent years.

Given the dire financial straits of the state, this spending possibly comes off as irresponsible. Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget calls for a 20 percent cut in funding for PASSHE institutions, and although the state Senate has recently voted to limit these cuts, such behavior hardly aligns with the belt-tightening rhetoric so popular with university leaders.

Yet the great irony is that these increased capital expenditures are possibly the result of such cuts.

With increasingly smaller portions of University budgets coming from the government, schools are increasingly developing modern business practices to entice students and bump enrollment to fill budget gaps. Just as a restaurant or store must offer the newest facilities to keep up with competitors, state-related schools must continuously update their appearance if they want to increase revenue.

Thus, schools are increasingly spending money on capital projects designed primarily with this in mind. A survey of U.K. universities showed 79 percent had construction plans costing more than 5 million pounds, with most projects driven primarily by the goal for more applicants.

To an extent, this is good for students. At many schools, this competition is largely what has driven the new on-campus living options, for instance. Compare a spacious, modern Bouquet Gardens apartment to a 1960s-era Towers room and you can see how improved the modern experience has become.

But the downfall of appealing mainly to new students is that academic standards become less important. A recent high school graduate might not have any clear ideas about his or her individual academic direction. Even if one has a general academic plan outlined, however, it is hard to evaluate how a university’s funding practices toward specific departments or research labs will impact future benefits from the university.

Therefore, even if students make their college selections carefully, they can’t base them entirely on academics. Instead, they place disproportionate weight on what they know and understand: food, dorms, sports and buildings.

At schools like California University of Pennsylvania, this strategy has worked. Thanks largely to new buildings, enrollment at the school has increased 45 percent in the past decade — the largest increase of any of PASSHE’s 14 universities.

This business-first approach hasn’t completely ignored academics. Along with the new dorms and student centers, a new science building on campus and some other renovations have helped certain departments grow. Even the new screens and audio equipment may help to augment the school’s multimedia programs.

But undeniably, this new approach still emphasizes increasing revenue. As schools across the country continue to lose government support and higher education continues its transformation into a business, we can’t be surprised when schools shift funding away from academics and toward attracting students.