Palm trees lace the sidewalks of Loyola Marymount University’s Southern California campus. In the heart of Los Angeles, the private university resides 20 minutes from just about anywhere. The hustle and bustle of downtown, the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills and the salty sea breeze of Santa Monica await, just a short ride away. As students rush to class, complimentary valet drivers park their cars. Popular artists like MGMT and Aloe Blacc headline free, biannual concerts.
Universities across the nation are entering an arms race of collegiate offerings, constantly trying to one-up and overpower—and it’s a dangerous precedent to set.
“You give momentum to ‘the student is the customer’ when you charge them so much money,” says Wesleyan University President Michael Roth, in the 2014 Emmy-nominated documentary, Ivory Tower.
Roth touches upon the single most significant change of modern education: “The student is the customer.” Colleges brand themselves like businesses instead of academic institutions. However, they are not selling a product or a service, they’re selling an experience. A top-notch education no longer counts as a worthy value proposition because so many colleges offer it. Instead, they differentiate themselves in other areas, like infrastructure. The rise of college tuition has created an unsustainable economic trend of high bills and student debt.
“I would literally throw up if I paid full tuition at LMU,” says Zoë Daily, a junior premedical student at Loyola Marymount University with a wry smile, yet an undertone of pained earnestness. “But really, I don’t understand why anyone would go here if they had to pay full tuition with student loans.”
Despite Daily’s misgivings, the number of students paying tuition with loans increases every year. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student loan balances have grown to a staggering $1.279 trillion. Over 44 million Americans owe student loans, exceeding the number of U.S. citizens with credit card debt.
“I didn’t take one loan that LMU offered me, and trust me—they offered me a lot,” says Daily. “If I didn’t get a scholarship, I just would’ve gone somewhere else.”
Daily’s sentiment of sickness toward the price of tuition is slightly assuaged by her scholarship. However, the ease of which scholarships are handed out raises an even more stomach-churning issue. The National Association of College and University Business Officers writes in its Tuition Discounting Study that 87% of incoming freshmen receive scholarships, leaving the remaining 13% to foot the bill. This pricing scheme contributes to the onslaught of student loans. If colleges offered no scholarships for merit or athletics, the average price of tuition would nestle right around $20,000—a far cry from the $40,000 price tag of Loyola Marymount. The disproportionate amount of students being offered scholarships is a marketing tactic sure to be taught in the very business course the students enroll in: Put an unattainable price on the tag, and consumers will feel they made a steal when offered a discount.
“When you’re a prospective college student, you’re looking for an education and you’re looking for a lifestyle,” says Darryl Cilli, founding partner at 160over90, a branding agency that represents the University of California, Los Angeles. “You want something that is completely customized to you.”
The concept of a personalized education finds itself in universities’ mission statements all around the world. College branding has become so rampant that the messages are beginning to mesh together, pushing the ability for students to customize and personalize an education. However, a trend has begun that may achieve this goal without the massive spending and debt that comes along with student personalization. According to an online report by the Babson Survey Research Group, online college enrollment has increased every year for the past 10 years, offering an incomparable amount of customization on the part of the student.
“Students can study and take their exams when they want, not when the sabbaticals, holidays and scheduling of teaching staff allow,” writes The Economist editorial board, in its article, “Higher Education: Not What it Used to Be.”
However, the profit margins are lower and the allure is drastically less potent, largely due to the lack of campus. Students not only want in-person collaboration, but they want to do so in an elegant, inspiring atmosphere.
“I go to office hours, I use the tutoring, I use the lab, gym, housing and library,” says Daily. “I am in the new life and science building every single day, and use the free gym classes twice a week.”
Loyola Marymount University is not alone in its infrastructure investments. An hour’s drive south, students tan by the $1.1 million dorm pool at Chapman University in Orange County, California. The sounds of splashing and summer tunes clash with the jackhammering across the street, where workers begin building the largest, most expensive building ever constructed on Chapman’s campus, according to vice president of planning and operations Kris Olsen. The university finished construction on an $82 million performing arts center last year. University spending on state-of-the-art buildings, rock-climbing walls and hot tubs doubled debt levels of over 500 institutions, according to Andrew Martin in his New York Times article, “Building a Showcase Campus, Using an I.O.U.”
The emphasis hasn’t always been on infrastructure. Historically, it’s been on instruction. According to The Economist, university expenditures on instruction—including professor salaries and training programs—have risen more slowly than any other field since 1990. Yet, according to some students, professors are the least important aspect in terms of value in regards to their education.
“Although high salary is a nice aspect of the teaching environment at LMU, I don’t think all teachers here are worth that,” says Daily. “I’ve had many teachers who aren’t meant to be teachers, and my education has suffered as a result.”
As the quality of infrastructure rises along with student debt, another more optimistic statistic continues to grow: the number of students enrolling in higher education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 20.5 million students are expected to attend American colleges and universities in 2016—an increase of 5.2 million since 2000. As the demand continues to grow, so will the supply—and who can blame colleges for trying to bolster their share of the market?
Under the shade of the palm trees at Loyola Marymount University lie dozens of students studying for exams. They make it to their classes on time thanks to the valet parking and meet potential business partners during the pop concerts. In the end, asks Zoë Daily’s mother, Penny, who’s to judge?
“My goal is to make sure my daughter gets the best education possible,” she says. “If that includes some tanning by the pool and some rock walls, so be it.”