The No Construction Solution?

The cost of college keeps rising. No one has quite figured out a way to address this problem, though President Barack Obama earlier this year proposed vague sanctions on colleges that hike tuition excessively.

Or perhaps the country could just tackle the causes behind the tuition hikes. According to an article by Timothy Noah in The New Republic:

Where to start? I propose a voluntary moratorium on new construction on college campuses.

My inspiration comes from Ernest Davis, Patrick Deer, and Mark Crispin Miller, three NYU professors who, in an April 26 New York Times op-ed (“Expand Minds, Not the NYU Campus”), call on NYU to halt its planned $6 billion expansion. There are unique issues here involving historic preservation–NYU has been slowly wrecking the character of its Washington Square neighborhood for several decades–but Davis, Deer, and Miller also point out that since NYU doesn’t have a monster endowment, the new construction will be funded at least in part by loading up the university with more debt. That will mean higher tuition and more debt for NYU students, and it will also mean that NYU will further price itself out of reach for prospective and current students.

This is probably not a bad idea, but would it help? Well, perhaps a little.

But while new construction might be a particularly obvious example of higher education spending, it’s not really new construction (which is often bond issued and/or donor financed) that’s driving up the cost of college. It’s declining state funding. About 80 percent of American college students attend state colleges. At most institutions, in fact, tuition doesn’t pay for construction projects at all.

Noah acknowledges that not all higher education construction projects are wasteful. As he explains:

Is some of this new construction urgently necessary? No doubt. But if the president [of the United States] called for a voluntary moratorium on new university construction, he would empower state governments, local communities, and concerned faculty members… to press university administrators harder to justify their new projects. A voluntary moratorium would also give the federal government some running room to set up some longer-term procedures for imposing a mandatory moratorium down the line. Lots more needs to be done to control college costs. Curtailing runaway construction would be a good start.

Well perhaps. But it sounds here like university construction is just being used as a symbol of spending. Is it actually the cause? No doubt some construction is wasteful and unaffordable, but “empowering state governments… to press university administrators harder to justify their new projects” won’t make college any cheaper. This doesn’t sound like real thrift; it sounds like thrift theater.

State governments, frankly, already feel pretty well empowered to press university administrators to spend less money. It’s legislators’ unwillingness to spend more money on state colleges that cause the institutions to raise tuition.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer