College students often make jokes about being broke, but all jokes come from truth. Crippling student debt riddles campuses across the country, perpetuating from state schools to small private colleges. According to data from the Education Department, “student debt burdens for the typical bachelor’s degree holder who relied on loans to help fund their education have increased about 163.8 percent” over the last twenty-five years. One might attribute this to inflation, but median wages have only increased 1.6 percent.
Data also shows that seven out of every ten college students pursue loans to fund their degrees, while in the 1990’s that number was closer to half of all college students. These numbers leave students of all backgrounds wondering if degrees are even worth it. At such high education costs, debt is impossible to escape regardless of career field or school choice.
There’s no doubting that colleges need to take this debt into account when setting up tuition, but colleges continue to increase tuition each year. Why? Because college is a business. These colleges need to keep their campuses aesthetically pleasing so as to attract new students, so they hike up their tuition in order to fund new constructions on campus. In an ideal world, a higher tuition would mean better quality of education, but in reality, higher tuition is coming closer to a college with the facilities of a country club: tuition increases, to students’ frustration, correspond with construction rather than instruction.
Where is all my money going?
During the college search, many high school students keep their focus on infrastructure. They wonder if they’ll need to share a bathroom in college or if the school has a fitness center available to use. Obviously, a student can’t spend four years on a campus that’s unbearable and in shambles, but colleges might be spending too much on beautifying their campuses. According to Dodge Data & Analytics, colleges and universities spent $11.5 billion last year on construction, which is an all-time high. Students want quality facilities, but spending an all time high fund on that should not be necessary.
An example of a school’s costly beautification is Juilliard School, which is already well-known and respected no matter how it looks. The school completed a major renovation recently that left its debt, adjusted for inflation, rise from $6 million in 2002 to $195 million in 2011. It’s undeniable that the school now looks beautiful, but with debt so high, it’s impacting tuition. This concept of colleges and universities dropping large sums of money into construction is called by some the Edifice Complex or Taj Mahal Syndrome. College officials, students, parents and alumni alike are impacted by it, yet the cycle perpetuates more and more each year.
Why do colleges bother with construction?
The problem of the Edifice Complex is visible in public universities. To keep students from seeking education at private institutions, they make their campuses look better. Whether the school is public or private, it still runs as a business, meaning that it needs money to function. Many public colleges and universities struggle to maintain their current (usually older) facilities while also constructing new facilities. Since these are public institutions, they first look for money from the government, but when they can’t get what they need to pay off their debts this way, they must search for other resources.
States realize that unlike prisons or infrastructure, colleges have income outside of legislation. Brian Swanson, the Assistant Vice President for University Service, Finance and Strategy at University of Minnesota says every year they “lose ground and costs increase. And if [they] don’t get the money from the legislature, the only other place [they] have to get it is tuition.”
Students turn to public universities for their lower tuitions, but even that is disappearing as these universities raise their tuition to pay off debt. Debts from a school’s own construction projects become the responsibility of students to pay off. These colleges need more students, so they pay to keep up their facilities, but then they need more money from students to pay for this, so tuitions rise. Buildings can’t fall apart in the middle of class, but when record high tuition bills are paying for more than just the education, the system might need adjustments.
The impact of debt
A lot can be blamed for rising tuition and student loan debt, but the Edifice Complex contributes to college borrowing that is higher than ever. In terms of students, nearly one in every six borrowers with a student loan balance is currently in default. The United States is in the middle of a student debt crisis, and schools choose to ignore this as they embark on pricey renovations. Former students trying to pay back their debts are now forced to put off major life events such as marriages and house purchases because of their debt.
Saving money these days is a lot more complicated than just forgoing avocado toast. Millennials are leading lives based around their debt, and the country’s economy is becoming impacted by it. And even though they spend and borrow so much more than past generations, students are not receiving much quality from schools. While colleges are increasingly relying on students and their families to pay more money, spending on improving education quality is falling flat. Instead of spending the money on students and their education, colleges are allocating more and more of their fund on “Academic and Institutional Support, Operations and Maintenance,” according to data collected from the Delta Cost Project. In other words, students these days are getting less bang for their buck and still in more debt.
The future of the Edifice Complex
Even though the numbers are unsustainable, an unfaltering upward trend in tuition can be seen all across the United States. Colleges’ renovation projects will be finished at some points, but maintenance costs will always exist. These colleges can either scale down their budgets for projects or let their campuses look a little less stylish than other schools. At any rate, the only solution to the debt of schools is for states to devote more money to colleges. Only when colleges stop relying on eighteen years olds to pay for million dollar construction projects can this vicious cycle stop.