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4 Disturbing Ways Big Banks Have Turned Colleges Into Money-Grubbing Institutions

As colleges and universities look to pad their bottom lines, who's losing out? Students and society.
 
 
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Like many others, I’m a passionate alumnus of my post-secondary institutions. I care deeply about preserving the rich culture of learning and community-building that fundamentally shaped my life. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that drastic changes are being made to American college and university life -- changes that are fundamentally altering the ecology of higher education in this country and undercutting the very mission of the college experience as we know it.   

A growing culture of reform has turned the campus quad away from preparing students for citizenship -- that combination of “intelligence plus character” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. once famously described. In its place, we now have campus environments that hold certain aspects of student life hostage to corporate interests, molding students into consumers at the same time the voices and opinions of the student body are increasingly silenced. As a result, higher education, often noted as the best insurance policy toward social mobility, is now no such thing (at least good insurance policies pay their claims).

Here’s a look at some disturbing changes taking place on campuses across the country.

1. Privatizing Student Life

Changes in campus dorms, quite possibly the epicenter of the student experience, represent a clear illustration of how this new world order is unfolding. Often unknown to students, campus dorms across the country are no longer run by the university, but by private companies that reap large profits from their management deals. These deals have become particularly prevalent at public universities, which have experienced massive funding loses in recent years and are increasingly turning to corporate backing to fill the void (the universities, of course, take a cut of the profits raised by the management companies).

Education Realty Trust is one such company. One of the largest developers of privatized collegiate housing, EdR operates in 23 states and since 2000, has developed more than 33 privatized housing communities on and off campus. The dorms it develops are more than cement structures for living; in many cases, it has transformed dormitory residences into extravagant resorts. Examples include the amenities-rich complex now being built at the University of Alabama, which features a movie theater, clubhouse and resort-style pools and fitness rooms, and the Players Club, a resort-style housing complex that was built for Florida State University. Similar projects are in progress at the University of Texas-Austin, University of Kentucky and the University of Connecticut-Storrs.

Perks like these come at a price, of course, so EdR seeks out schools with solid student populations that will foot the elevated costs (ideally, those with populations of greater than 10,000-15,000 students, as well as high tuition and graduation rates).  As Amy Scott reported for NPR, at the University of Louisville privatized dorms cost about $600 more per student/per semester than traditional dorms.  And those extra fees come right out of students’ pockets.

As a result, colleges are intentionally burdening the entire student body with increased housing costs, and putting a particular burden on working families and low-income students—all in the name of profit. In addition to forcing many students to pile up excessive amounts of debt that will have ramifications long after they have graduated from college, such increased fees may also interfere with their studies and limit student engagement in the larger community (it’s hard to find time to engage in clubs and activities, or make it to the library, when you have to work two jobs just to keep a roof over your head).

When faced with this criticism, colleges and universities often argue that the combination of increased competition to attract the best students and severe budget cuts make private companies like EdR, and competitors such as American Campus Communities, a necessary tool in maintaining their competitive edge—and of course, bolstering profit in this new higher education marketplace. And sharing revenue with these privately held companies isn’t the only way colleges are looking to pad their bottom lines; in some cases, colleges and universities will use tax-exempt bond financing to fund these projects so that they can be excused from local property taxes--a simple tax evasion to preserve profit.