Arnold Kling  

Bricks, Mortar, and Education

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Stephen Gordon writes,


Eventually you could have local campuses becoming places where MITx students seek tutoring, network, and socialize - reclaiming some of the college experience they'd otherwise have lost.

Phil thought this sounded like college as a giant coffee shop. I agree. Every education would be ad hoc. It would be student-directed toward the job market she's aiming for.

Gordon argues that book stores and retail stores in general should take of up less space and hold less inventory. Along the same lines, Marc Andreessen says,

It's going to get harder and harder to justify the retail store model. The model has this fundamental problem where every store has to have its own inventory and every store is also a warehouse. The economic deadweight of that entire inventory in each store--that's what took down Borders.

But I want to stick to colleges and universities. Over the last twenty years, every campus that I have visited has been in a construction frenzy. I would love to see data comparing square footage of physical plant per student at the top fifty universities in 1990 with today--my guess is that it has gone up by more than 30 percent. And yet we have known that the Internet was going to reduce the relative value of buildings. It is hard to think of a more striking phenomenon of supposedly smart people (in charge of universities) doing an obviously stupid thing (putting up buildings).

If college were truly a utilitarian good, all it would take to turn these edifice-complex campuses into ghost towns is a good hack for the accreditation process. But at the high levels, college is a status good. Let me repeat that going to a top college today is like belonging to the right church in 1850 or the right country club in 1950. When you are supplying a status good, ostentatiously wasting money on buildings can increase demand.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
THM writes:

“But at the high levels, college is a status good”

Perhaps this is more accurate: for a handful of humanities-intensive Northeast universities—which are feeders for Wall Street, management consulting and federal govt jobs – a degree is a status good. And if you remove these recruiting opportunities, the perceived exclusivity of these schools takes a hit, particularly since these schools tend to be relatively weak in the money-maker STEM subjects.

If I were a chancellor at a large public university, free internet education would worry me. If I were a chancellor at Columbia or Yale, the dim prospects for Wall Street would worry me. Once you remove those opportunities, the rarefied air seems decidedly average.

fundamentalist writes:

Things will change when the Feds are broke and quit loaning money to go to college.

The lecture method of instruction was created by the ancient Greeks because of the shortage of books. The printing press is 500 years old. Why are we still lecturing instead of having students read and take tests over what they read? Why is taking a test over lecture material considered more educational than a test over reading material?

Research has shown that reading something improves retention over hearing it in a lecture by a large amount. So why maintain this medieval method?

The answer must be: college is a status good.

So how do we lift the status of online education? So far, online schools have catered to the lowest common denominator. They have a high failure rate because most of the students aren't college material.

We need an online school that only accepts top academic students. But to get started, it needs to borrow reputation and status from another institution. Ivy league colleges would be the obvious choice, but they aren't going to shoot themselves in the head by starting a high quality online school.

BTW, colleges build buildings because rich people like to give money to colleges that will name a building after them. We need rich people who are satisfied with scholarships named after them.

ajb writes:

Let's not forget that **donors** like buildings. The folk wisdom (which I can't verify) among administrators is that rich people are more willing to give millions of dollars for a building with their name on it than the same amount for research or faculty salaries. If this is true, then buildings might pass the university cost benefit test in the short run (while causing problems in the future).

My understanding is that many donors just don't trust universities to spend the money wisely but it's a great and verifiable status good to see a new building put up with your name on it.

Jon writes:
Over the last twenty years, every campus that I have visited has been in a construction frenzy. I would love to see data comparing square footage of physical plant per student at the top fifty universities in 1990 with today--my guess is that it has gone up by more than 30 percent.

What do students have to do with it? Here, we've had a construction boom too. There is always a new building under construction, and recently a few at the same time. Classroom space is not increasing. Usually there is a seminar room in each new building. Sure you can call that classroom space, but they get constructed to hold seminars. The classroom use is residual.

These projects are usually framed in terms of chasing research opportunities. X is a growing field, we need more space for X.

Seth writes:

On my visits to one of my alma maters, I've noticed quite an expansion in plant as well. Not just to the instruction buildings. Dorms were made over to be more like alpine ski lodges. An indoor water park was built inside the historic walls of the original campus gymnasium (without destroying the historic facade, of course). They have an exercise room the size of a football field, with TVs on most of the equipment. Since I graduated, the student commons area has been remodeled once and then leveled and rebuilt. Coffee shops have been added to the library.

It seems that schools are competing for students not on the quality of the education they offer, but the quality of the amenities.

M writes:

Hi Arnold,

I seem to recall John Nye mentioning that universities were heavily incentivized to always be under construction due to tax break incentives. Perhaps you could ask him if this is so.

Ian B writes:

I disagree with this statement:

"And yet we have known that the Internet was going to reduce the relative value of buildings."

I think that the Internet's impact on the relative value of most college buildings has been and will continue to be insignificant.

The internet decreases the value of libraries. I think that's obvious. However the internet has not replaced the benefit of face-to-face interaction. The new buildings at my alma mater are designed to enhance interaction and take advantage of technology:

-Classrooms with semi-circular rows to aid classroom discussion

-Conference rooms (long table with tv+computer) for ad hoc use for group projects

-Tons of computer labs with expensive software installed (software development, statistical, simulations, modeling, etc)

My workplace (software company) is basically one big computer lab plus a ton of conference rooms. It doesn't surprise me that colleges are moving toward that model. The model seems to fit our current level of technology: you use the expensive software to do the work on your computer, then meet in person to review, teach, sell, or make decisions. Note that we still meet in person in situations that require any non-trivial discussion.

I think that there is value in replacing old high-school style buildings full of classrooms with buildings set up for this more modern workflow.

PS: Isn't there a simple way to measure the internet's impact on buildings? Compare internet usage to travel volume and office+retail building values. If meeting in person didn't matter, there wouldn't be offices or stores and people would not travel.

Simone Simonini writes:

I don't think the construction necessarily has anything to do with providing more value to students, status-seeking or otherwise. University administrators raise their own status by expanding their personal empires.

gaspard writes:

"It is hard to think of a more striking phenomenon of supposedly smart people (in charge of universities) doing an obviously stupid thing (putting up buildings)."

..but actually they are legion -

businesses still paying for so much business travel (hotels, flights) when teleconferencing is close to being perfected

the continued importance and privilege of physical meetings, working in buildings vs asynchronous collaboration from home offices over the net

I think this is where your PSST really illuminates things, as long as we recognise that apparently unsustainable practices continue on a surprisingly long timescale (e.g., emailing scanned documents should have killed the fax machine overnight, yet it still persists 20 yrs on, the US is still using paper cheques, etc.)

Mark Brady writes:

Further to Seth's remarks, we should remember that undergraduate education is a consumption good as much as it is anything else.

Floccina writes:

Maybe we should think of universities as competing to buy the best students.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

I think we definitely need to account for Universities bidding over who gets the best students. When I applied to undergraduate programs, one of the schools I was accepted to offered significantly more need-based financial aid than the other.

I was a little confused, since based on the financial calculations of the lower-award university I couldn't possibly afford to go there. I called them up to figure out why. I wasn't even complaining, but somehow, magically, my award amount increased by about 50% just a few days later. That's either a huge coincidence or a bidding war.

Jay Hall writes:

"If college were truly a utilitarian good, all it would take to turn these edifice-complex campuses into ghost towns is a good hack for the accreditation process."

Allow me to ask: just what are you proposing to certify?

Let me approach this from my perspective as a facility manager. We see facilities (including buildings) as more than just spaces occupied by walls and ceilings and roofs and electrical systems and floors and elevators and plumbing and doors and windows and heaters and paint and rebar and ... all that "physical" stuff that Brother Arnold sees turning into ghost towns later in the 21st century. Whether they've been built for schools or churches or businesses or playgrounds or houses - those facilities don't mean jack unless they do something for the people who use them.

As Ian B notes, his workplace has been constructed to help him and his coworkers interact more productively. Sure, some buildings on a college campus (like those big oval bowl-shaped thingies) may have been built more to impress future donors or future students than to teach future generations, but a lot of them have been built - and are maintained - to create an atmosphere where both students and teachers can learn things more intensely than they could "in the real world", i.e., off campus. In that sense, a move to more Internet-based learning wouldn't entirely remove the need for physical meeting places for students and teachers, because they'd still need someplace to meet and interact. College campuses wouldn't need to be as large as they are today, but they couldn't disappear entirely.

So to a certain extent I agree with Arnold. There are many US college campuses, both public and private, that are over-built. But as has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, I believe that the main motivation for that has been improper government fiscal incentivization rather than a construction "arms race".

GU writes:

I wonder why more students and professors don't complain about the never ending construction. It is noisy, and it brings unwelcome automobiles, trucks, etc., not to mention the low-class workers who ride into campus on said trucks.

Walter Sobchak writes:

Two observations:

1. What I have seen around here is that the campus building boom seems to be in the area of Medicine and bio-medical research.

2. My oldest child started at a "prestigious" mid-western private research university in 2000 and my youngest graduated from one in 2010. As near as I could tell, classes were not held before 9 am nor after 2 pm, nor on Friday. It takes a lot of class rooms to accommodate such an indolent schedule.

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