Colleges are becoming more like businesses, according to a report released last week by a higher-education research group at Brown University.
The group, The Futures Project, did a five-year study on how higher education is becoming more competitive and market-oriented, said Lara Couturier, the project’s interim principal investigator.
“The way universities are competing for the best students, prestige and reputation has become far more competitive than a decade ago,” Couturier said.
According to the report, colleges are spending money on facilities with little educational value, such as “state-of-the-art computer labs, luxury dormitories and sparkling, new gymnasiums” to attract the best students.
“What’s interesting and so threatening about this is each of these decisions makes sense on an individual level. The students are asking for these facilities,” Couturier said.
“But when you look at it as a trend happening across the country, it takes away from the overall mission of public universities.”
But Jim Turman, University of Minnesota assistant vice provost for student affairs and director of the department of recreational sports, said having facilities on campus that promote community and an active lifestyle for students is important.
“Our research shows that students who participate in athletics, student organizations or greek life feel better about their overall college experience than those not involved,” Turman said.
Jamie Larson, a member of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, said a university’s top priority should be education, not building expensive facilities.
“The most-important part of a university is education,” she said.
Larson said the University of Minnesota should focus on graduation rates, because students are not graduating on time.
“They are focusing on getting students here and not getting them graduated,” Larson said.
Britt Johnson, president of the University of Minnesota’s Council of Graduate Students, said she thinks the university is becoming more market-oriented.
“I definitely think our university is in line with that trend,” Johnson said.
“All you really have to do is listen to the statements that the administration and the governor make about becoming cost-efficient, marketing to the consumer and making the most out of our money.”
Johnson said decreases in funding for higher education are partially responsible for creating more businesslike universities.
“The dramatic national decreases you see in funding cause a clamor to do something about (the loss),” Johnson said.
The way universities distribute financial aid was also criticized in the report.
“Financial aid has been used as a competitive tool to lure students to campus,” Couturier said.
She said funding is not getting to the students with the most need.
“There has been a major shift to merit-based awards,” Couturier said.
It’s important not only to attract the highest-achieving students, Johnson said, but also to help low-income students afford college.
“It’s equally important that universities fund students who can’t afford college on their own,” Johnson said.