The Campus Dissipation Dilemma

Lately, while I was walking across a college campus it was hard for me to shake the idea that the physical entities of higher education are increasingly running the risk of becoming enormous inert repositories of energy and resources.

What do I mean?   Well clearly I am just trying to be overtly provocative.   But sometimes doing so provokes an open, honest conversation.

Well, let me start with the financial sink of endowments.    If you just add up the dollars parked in endowments by the 50 universities/colleges with the largest endowments you get about $260 Billion.    Forbes magazine estimates that the value of all university/college endowments is close to $450 Billion.

$450 Billion.   Now consider that the annual common take out rate is roughly 3.5%.   Hopefully, the investment portfolio is yielding more than 3.5% — meaning a lot of money is sitting there inert.    Sure – the funds serve as a hedge against the future and against inflation.    And it is working capital in the sense that it is actively invested.    But from a practical standpoint the amount of money growing in coffers represents a large sum of money that is, truth be told, not working very hard.

Next let’s randomly wander the halls of these beautiful buildings – some old but many more of them new.  Campuses have undergone a construction boon in the last decade.  A portion of the new space represents the increasing support for the STEM disciplines.    But another LARGE portion is the result of the “amenities-arms race” and is comprised of recreational spaces.     Luxury dorms, coffee bars, and dining options abound on campus.    Makes me wonder what has happened to all those small, typically inexpensive Mom and Pop restaurants and dive bars that used to be the mainstay of student  social life?

Mid-day, on a Thursday, most of the buildings I peeped into  – with the exception of the spaces designed for social activities – seemed underpopulated.     Empty auditoriums and seminar rooms.   Underutilized classrooms.    Lonely libraries.   Just a lot of space with no one there.   Why in a time of increasing “virtualness” and the “sharing economy” are campuses creating bricks and mortar infrastructure redundancy?    One of the buildings I passed appeared for all intents and purposes to be nothing more than an edifice and an atrium.    Perhaps this building was simply an honest nod at the future?

The saddest example of underutilized resources – human capital.     Why are so many smart young people shuffling around campus – under-challenged and over-rewarded?    Why do we demand so little from them?   With all we know about learning why are so many college students still sitting in classrooms listening to lectures?    Or sitting but not attending?    Or maybe not even sitting, opting to be elsewhere?       Is that what the amenities race is all about?    If we can’t keep them in classrooms at least we can keep them on campus?    Socializing, working out, belonging.    Maybe that is what tomorrows college is about?    Or maybe the kids are just so darn smart?    Maybe learning is occurring in different ways?    But then why are we shoring up the old model?

There is so much invested in higher Ed.    Billions of dollars.    Acres of square footage.   Trillions of neurons.      These campuses should be the most intellectually vibrant places on earth.   And maybe they are – but it sure does not look or feel that way.    I could be completely wrong, of course.    I am sure there are people who find college campuses stimulating, energizing, challenging.     Why do I have the nagging feeling that the people who do are faculty, development staff, and parents?     We see the veneer and we impose ourselves in it.     But what if we scratched the surface – what might we find underneath?

There has been so much written about the costs, the grade-inflation, the silly courses, the rising rates of inebriation and sexual harassment.    Clearly, something is going awry.     But that is not what concerns me     I am more concerned with what we could be achieving with all the energy and resources if we were more imaginative.

What do you think?

Note: JSMF is a private foundation with an endowment.    However JSMF exists for very different purposes.   And it does not continually clamor for more funding.    In fact, JSMF has steadily decreased both its staff and its physical footprint during the years I have worked here – and maintained a steady rate of grant-making.