The two dirtiest words in higher education these days are “climbing” and “wall.”
Seriously, if you spend enough time attending conferences, reading op-eds, etc., you come to realize that that climbing walls have somehow come to symbolize all that ails post-secondary education in America today. People are constantly denouncing their proliferation, or loudly noting that their institution refuses to install one, or otherwise employing them as a symbol of consumerism run amok. Students today demand all manner of creature comforts, the thinking goes, forcing colleges to kow-tow to their every whim, which is why college is so expensive and academic standards are in decline and the academy in general is a pale shadow of its former, greater self, back when students were students and professors were professors and higher learning happened how and where it was meant to happen, that is, in unheated, dimly-lit buildings constructed entirely of large granite blocks quarried no later than the 16th century.
This puzzles me.
First, because of all the things to be upset about, climbing walls don’t seem that bad. Are they really that expensive? At least students are getting some exercise. How about dorms that cost nearly $400,000 per unit? That’s extravagance.
Second, because colleges act as if they have no influence over the consumer preferences of students. Which is ridiculous. For example, some time in the near future I’m going to drive to the Best Buy on Route 1 in Alexandria, Virginia, and buy a flat-screen television, The store offers something like a hundred different models to choose from. In making my selection, I’ll be asking a number of questions. How big is it, measured diagonally, in inches? How many HDMI inputs? Ethernet connection? Plasma, LCD, or LED? Are there 1080 lines of resolution? 120 Hz or the more powerful 240hz? And so on.
How do I know to ask these questions? And why is every similar customer, regardless of where they live and where they’re shopping, asking the same questions? Because that’s how flat-screen televisions are advertised. I also consulted independent reports like this article in the New York Times, which advises that LEDs are really just backlit LCDs and I only need 240hz if I’m going to spend a lot time watching fast-motion programming like pro football. (I won’t be; I’m more of an HBO and Showtime guy.) So there’s some marketing b.s. to wade through. But it’s safe to say that there are no crucial elements of flat-screen televisions that aren’t readily available for me to understand.
By contrast, let’s say I was trying to choose the right college for my (non-existent) 17-year old daughter. And let’s say I’m the perfect higher education consumer from the academy’s perspective—I don’t care at all about climbing walls or fitness centers or luxury dorms or any of that stuff. I care about all the truly important things I’m supposed to care about: the quality of the teaching, scholarship, and academic environment, how the school will help my daughter become an enlightened, ethical, fair-minded public citizen.
How would I choose? Where would I get that information, in a way that would allow me to decide among hundreds of alternatives? Answer: nowhere, because it doesn’t exist. Colleges may complain about having to market themselves based on dorm-based pilates studios and whatnot, but it’s not like they have some other secret brochure in a filing cabinet somewhere, filled with all the real information about the true meaning of higher education, materials that they would gladly distribute far and wide if only students weren’t so coddled by their helicopter parents and addled by the rap music and the video games.
In fact most colleges don’t systematically gather this kind of information, or if they do–via the National Survey of Student Engagement or something similar–they don’t release it to the public. Yes, yes, colleges are lot more complicated than televisions. But nobody can say with a straight face that colleges are doing nearly as much as they could to provide consumers with information about teaching and learning that’s useful for making consumer choices–that is, presented in a way that allows for institutional comparisons.
Even the data that colleges do gather, like graduation rates, are usually buried on the IR department Web page somewhere. Why? Because graduation rate are frequently terrible. And that’s the real climbing wall scandal: they’re cheap, compared to the cost of improving the quality of instruction that many undergraduates receive. If colleges want consumers to make choices differently, then colleges have take the lead in creating, promoting and standing behind different terms of consumer choice.