With competition for applicants increasing — and likely to increase further through 2022 as the population of Americans between 18 and 24 falls 4% — higher education institutions are getting increasingly inventive with the lengths they'll go to for new enrollments. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics foresees that decline, coupled with disposable income and unemployment projections, resulting in the number of first-time college freshmen growing only 16% over the next decade, compared to the 39% growth rate experienced between 1997 and 2011.
Instead of fighting for new students by investing in academics, many colleges and universities are trying to beat the competition with investments in more discretionary areas, like increasingly fancy campus amenities. National Bureau of Economic Research findings from 2013 back this up, especially when it comes to students from wealthier families.
So what are these institutions offering? And are they seeing the desired results?
Buffalo-shaped swimming pools and rock-climbing rec centers
If you think animal-shaped pools can only be found at lavish resorts and the homes of the rich and famous, wait until you see the giant buffalo pool at the University of Colorado's Boulder campus. The heated outdoor pool was constructed in a recently completed $63 million renovation of the institution's recreation center and actually serves as part of the heat recovery loop for the center's ice rink. The alternative would have been a cooling tower — not quite an attractive gathering spot for students. So, fancy as the pool may be, it's actually serving dual purposes.
In April 2013, Chicago's Loyola University unveiled its own fancy 100,000-square-foot rec building, the Arnold J. Damen Student Center. Part of a series of construction projects that includes the university's station along the Chicago Transit Authority's Red Line, the three-floor center contains a dining hall, food court, sports lounge, 125-seat movie theater, big-screen TVs and video game consoles, pool tables, rock-climbing walls, and more.
Perks for students who live on campus — and those who "live" on campus
The University of Michigan made headlines last month with its introduction of napping stations in its campus library. Sure, the stations are little more than cots and have a 30-minute time limit, but it's an amenity many universities don't yet have and a luxury for non-resident students who practically live on campus.
The concept has also caught on at CU-Boulder with the "Siesta" nap center and was proposed last year at Harvard, but at least one university has gone the extra mile when it comes to giving students a space to catch a few Zs. For students who do live on its campus, one of the common areas of Saint Leo University's Apartment 5 residence hall features futuristic nap pods with spherical domes that lower over the user. A similar pod listed in a Forbes article and priced at $12,985 is described as using "soothing sounds" to help the user sleep.
That's not all Apartment 5 residents get, though: The Tampa Bay Tribune reports that common areas also include big-screen TVs; a fitness room; a game room with pool tables, pinball, Foosball, and video games; and a 2,100-gallon aquarium constructed on an episode of Animal Planet's "Tanked." And this isn't even the most lavish residence hall out there.
In contention for that title is the University of North Florida's Osprey Fountains, which, with its lazy river and putting green, is arguably more luxury resort than residence hall. The $86 million, 5-story, 375,000-square-foot residence hall opened in 2009 and boasts six themed lounges. Specifically, there's a '50s diner with booths and black-and-white floor, but no food service (Joe's Diner); a quiet study area (The Morgue); a room with big screen plasma TVs, carpet made to look like a football field, and fan-stand mural (The Upper-Deck); a karaoke lounge/open-mic night area (The Spotlight); a gaming room with TVs and desk stations (The Galaxy); and a looser hangout/study lounge with bean bags (The B.L.O.C.).
And that's not even including the fitness center, aerobics room, lap pool, running track, swings, picnic tables, and tennis, volleyball, and basketball courts.
Lavish amenities hit their "high point"
As over-the-top as some of the aforementioned amenities may seem, one school arguably outdoes all others. That school is High Point University.
Located in the "furniture capital of the world" of High Point, NC, this school is, as The Huffington Post points out, the Disney World of higher education. Among its $700 million in luxuries: Swimming pools and hot tubs aplenty, a completely free first-run movie theater with free snacks, a free arcade, a putting green, a free ice cream truck (also used frequently by school of education students at local schools), and an on-campus steak house. Its Plato S. Wilson School of Commerce has marble floors and a full-scale financial trading floor replica — which is actually a great academic tool. There's even a horse-drawn carriage and giant nutcrackers around the campus during the holidays.
Is all of this worth it?
As mentioned previously, many institutions see these extras as icing on the cake for prospective students — but they aren't just there to make a campus with unimpressive rankings more superficially attractive. High Point, for example, is ranked No. 1 regional college in the South by U.S. News and World Report. Details like these are often overlooked.
"I feel like we’ve almost been unfairly profiled, or however you want to define it, for the amenity thing," says HPU Vice President of Communications Roger Clodfelter. "But it’s hard to get people to write about, you know, building academic programs. They want to talk about these other things."
Along with those amenities, Clodfelter says the school has added four academic programs in the last 10 years, 86% of its graduates are employed or in graduate school (with 87% getting into their first-choice school) within six months of graduating, and new enrollments are scoring significantly higher on the SAT than just a few years ago.
Additionally, he adds, parental support is so high that the university's new $16 million Center for Student Success — which will house a career and internship program, as well as other experiential learning programs — was funded entirely through current parent donations. HPU's home page touts a total of $214 million in donations toward academics, support service, campus beautification, and more from alumni, parents, and friends in the last eight years.
The school also boasts a relatively modest tuition for a high-ranked private university with all of its bells and whistles: Tuition and fees currently stand at $31,480, while room and dining run a baseline of $11,480. It's not far off from other top regional colleges.
Clodfelter describes this, paraphrasing HPU President Nito Qubein, saying, "We’re very entrepreneurial, and we really have tried to focus on creating an environment here that not only provides the academic tools that students need to learn — and certainly we’ve invested greatly in making sure they’ve got state-of-the-art learning tools — but also to provide an environment that really encourages them to be innovative and to create and to hopefully go out and change the world."
And even some of those amenities are learning tools themselves. That first-run theater? It's also used by faculty for instruction and showing their own film series. And the ice cream truck? Education students use it during student learning as part of an incentive program for area elementary and middle schoolers.
"The thing I think is really interesting is, companies like Apple and Microsoft — and we do happen to have a couple of students who work at those companies, and others — they’re really applauded for their unique work environments and for the unique things they provide to their employees," he says. "Because they want their employees to be creative and innovative and to do good things for the company. Yet, when higher ed wants to try to create unique environments, it’s seen as some kind of odd thing."
For the outsider looking in, however, mixed feelings on these copious campus conveniences abound, as exhibited in a discussion on LinkedIn's Higher Education Management group. (Full disclosure: The group is owned by Industry Dive.)
"I say we ditch the amenities and begin investing in actual education. If someone won't attend a school because of the lack of a buffalo-shaped pool, maybe they don't belong in university in the first place," commented Tiffany Hartman, an educational psychology M.A. "I personally would have appreciated having the same state tuition subsidy that my father's generation enjoyed rather than some amenity that I would probably never use anyway."
Still, if there's a market for it...
"What is the comparison of amenities to that college's tuition and fees?" asked Michelle White-Godinet, assistant director of affirmative action at Kansas State University. "If students are willing to pay for it then I guess anything goes."