Colleges Making Fancier Gyms Instead of Smarter Graduates

In which we tackle college spending, student debt, and the worth of college education. College Runagay Katrina will be providing the feelings and 2010 College Graduate Sarah will be giving you the facts.


Katrina: In December I publisjed Confessions of a Teenage Runagay, which I wrote after fleeing my parents’ home for Texas/Mexico and, for a number of reasons, had no idea how I’d pay for my next semester of school at American University. In February I was crashing at Autostraddle CEO Riese’s apartment for what my friends and I had labeled “Spring Broke” and Riese asked me what I was doing about school. So I laid out my plan to mobilize the student body of my private university to question the administration on the allocation of our tuition dollars ($50,000 of ’em per year, to be exact).

Her: “So what you’re trying to say is that you’re not going to pay the rest of your tuition because it’s easier to start a social movement than to pay off your debt?”

Me: “Ummm… yes.”



A new report shows an alarming trend in American higher learning: it’s getting much more expensive and the money isn’t going into education. The study, Trends in College Spending 1998-2008, conducted by The Delta Cost Project, found that:

+ University funding levels are linked to the economy, and in times of recession, cuts usually fall heaviest on the educational side.

+ In times of recession, institutions “cost shift” by putting more burden on students and increasing tuition.

+ There’s a growing separation between public & private institutions on a class basis — “with the institutions serving the majority of students having the least to invest in their success.”

+ Tuition is locked in an upward spiral across all forms of higher education.

Not so promising! Here’s their summary of current perceptions of the situation:

What the public and most policy makers can see is that, whatever else happens, college tuitions continue to go up — at a rate faster than inflation and family incomes — with no discernible pay-off in quality, opportunity, or results. And as a result, public skepticism about higher education spending — and the values that are implicit in institutional decision about spending — is at an all-time high.

And now look at this graph, which shows percentage change in the cost of education vs. a bunch of other things, as well as inflation and average household income:

[click to enlarge]

That puts things in perspective, right? Most universities are in the habit of increasing tuition a couple percent every year, and this is the result. The worst part is, a lot of those tuition increases don’t actually go toward hiring better professors or improving education environments, which both the Huffington Post and The New York Times have discussed. A lot of that money pays for administration costs (universities have some of the most bloated administrative structures out there), infrastructure improvements, campus beautification, and new facilities such as gyms, student unions or dorms.

Here’s some purely anecdotal information for you based on my observations from college. When the recession hit in 2008, my university responded by putting a freeze on salaries and on hiring any faculty or staff. Fair enough, because the budget would be cut severely as the state took in less money.

However, at this minute, the entire campus is torn up because of repairs and construction — some that’s super necessary, but some that really isn’t. The university is about to complete a new student center, which was a giant undertaking. The new recreation center — which cost about $500 million — opened just a few years ago. Oh and the new journalism building across the street from my apartment also came with quite a price tag, plus it’s full of weird, modern chairs that cost hundreds of dollars apiece. Meanwhile, teachers haven’t been allowed to print syllabi for the last two years to save on printing costs.

Money for construction and money for faculty salaries comes from different places, I realize that. But it doesn’t mean that priorities are any less out of whack.

The report concludes with this ultimatum:

If current trends persist, in 2025 the United States will have lower levels of education attainment than much of the rest of the developed world. Turning this trajectory around will require huge attention to the deep issues of educational inequality, and the leaky pipeline that persistently disadvantages first-generation and low-income students.


Katrina: But I’ve always had mixed feelings about the institution of college. If it’s a training ground for society, I guess it’s doing it’s job — since as a society we’re constantly distracting ourselves from the oppressive/depressing realities of our political and economic systems with comfort and entertainment that verges on voyeurism. It’s unsurprising that University funding is being mis-allocated when in “the real world,” athletes & actors make millions while teachers and professors barely scrape by.

If universities are going to treat us not as minds and futures but instead as commodities and customers, then we need to insist that the customer always be right — I realized you can’t count on the administration to reach out to you. Get organized and make it clear you have a problem with how your money is being spent! Money is a terrible thing to waste, but so is a generation of education, so why settle for less? If we’re going to participate in the system, we have to demand that we get out what we put in.

Are we trusting these people to help usher us into adulthood? Or are we becoming adults by growing comfortably into a culture of complacency, where we’re faced with a glaringly obvious behemoth of a problem and have no motivation to fix it; rather we just shell out and move into a jobless economy that will trap us in debt forever ever?



Meanwhile, graduates are exiting school with heaps of student loan debt and record unemployment rates: 37% of 18- to 29-year-olds are unemployed or out of the workforce, the highest share among this age group in more than three decades. More than a third of 18-to-29 year olds still rely on support from their parents. The New York Times reports:

[Many college students graduate] facing decades of payments, limited capacity to buy a home and a debt burden that can repel potential life partners. For starters, it’s a shared failure of parenting and loan underwriting. But perhaps the biggest share lies with colleges and universities because they have the most knowledge of the financial aid process.”

From The Economic Policy Institute:

For the class of 2010, it will be one of the worst years to graduate high school or college since at least 1983  and possibly the worst since the end of World War II.

Of the 30 fastest growing careers in the United States, only a handful require a college degree, yet we have The Chroncile of Higher Education suggesting that in order to make college “worth the price of admission,” the 64% of undergraduate students enrolled in vocational majors ought to “consider philosophy, literature or physical sciences,” because “supposedly impractical studies are a wiser use of college and ultimately a better investment. The undergraduate years are an interlude that will never come again, a time to liberate the imagination and stretch one’s intellect without worrying about a possible payoff. We want that opportunity for everyone, not just the offspring of professional parents.”

Though that’s a really awesome idea (and one more transperently endorsed overseas), it may seem impractical to today’s undergradutes. Especially women — though women are overrepresented in higher education, men earn significantly more than women with similar education levels. Graduates can’t pay back the loans they took out to get the education that was supposed to get them the job that doesn’t exist.

But it seems nothing will dampen our enthusiasm for the American Dream we’ve been born & raised on. The Pew Research Center reports that “less than a third of currently employed Millennials report that they earn enough now to support the lifestyle they want, but nearly 90 percent believe they eventually will.”


KatrinaAs for me? Half of a college education changed me. The people I met changed me. We all ended up where we did because we had something in common and we all learned a lot from each other and had all these discussions that felt provocative and groundbreaking. Also running away changed a lot, I learned how much control I actually have over my own life. Once the term “social construction” was introduced to me I felt like I was home free. So now I’m working two part-time jobs and working on my writing. I feel like quality media are looking for insight, talent and ambition more than a degree.

After finishing out the year with additional financial aid I decided it just might not be my thing for now and so I’m not going back in the fall.  Being in school feels too tedious at this time. It doesn’t make sense for me to be running up a debt without any opportunity to make money to pay it off. Or maybe I’m impatient, or stubborn, or have undiagnosed ADD but probably not. But definitely the first two.

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Sarah lives in Chicago with her partner and her big white Great Dane. She is a lawyer by day and a beer brewer/bread baker/knitter by night. She & her partner are currently learning how to grow their own food, and eventually they hope to move to a small farm outside the city. In 2009-2010, before jetting off to law school, Sarah was Autostraddle's Managing Editor.

Sarah has written 127 articles for us.


  1. This is a pretty awesome and insightful post. I still think it’s pretty ridiculous what American students pay to universities—which should be free in the first place. Go Autostraddle!

  2. this scares me, especially since i’m going to university in the fall, to study for a useless degree in creative writing. also though, i’m going to a canadian university, which is a million times cheaper.

    • My “useless” creative writing degree got me a job as a technical writer. I make more than my girlfriend with her “sensible” IT degree! There’s hope! ;)

    • plus you’re in Quebec paying in-province tuition so basically it’s going to cost you like, 3 doritos and a well-timed hair flip. i miss home.

      i went to concordia, too. we eventually will need to talk about the women’s studies electives you will be taking.

  3. i just paid over $1,000 for three summer courses at a community college. which would have been fine but $568 of those dollars went towards a “processing fee”. what does that even mean?

    and they asked me why i wasn’t celebrating fourth of july…

    • Probably it means “our charter says we will never charge tuition but since our funding got cut we’re totally going to charge tuition, only it’s not gonna count because we’re calling it something else”.

      My community college did that, at least. Except for us, it’s an ‘enrollment fee’, which is even more transparently not-tuition-in-name-only.

  4. the blurb in the beginning just summarized my school. they built a new gym and library complex when they needed more dorms. then, they raised tuition by 4% and not my scholarship…

    • My community college in a nutshell: they a grant to ‘train students for the current workplace’ by buying computers for the new business and digital art classes… which were promptly stolen, because they couldn’t afford locks.

  5. Shit like this drives me absolutely nuts. I go to Stony Brook, and construction was just completed on a new building for theoretical geometry. Yes, theoretical geometry! I don’t even know what that is. It’s a beautiful building, but it has no classrooms (which we are in dire need of) and I have a feeling undergrads aren’t going to be able to even look at it without being chided. They’re also doing a hundreds of millions of dollars renovation of the gym/rec center. But dorms are falling apart all over campus, we need more classrooms, there has been a hiring freeze for two-ish years now, and this is what money is spent on. I can’t deal.

    And I want to spend seven more years of my life mired in this crap. I think I may be a little insane.

  6. I have always felt the american education system was far to decentralized on all levels. Even though most of the best universities in the world are in the States the average seems dismal. But thats just an opinion of someone who hasn´t even been to the States.

    I haven´t completed gymnasium(16-20 year olds)since i´m a bit of a bum but my friends are in the university of Iceland and they pay a 500$ enrollment fee every year(or semester aint sure.) Since we don´t have armed forces we can afford to spend more of our GDP on education than any other nation.

  7. not only do women have a harder time paying back loans because we earn less than men, we’re more likely to spend time unemployed/without a paycheck because of discrimination or taking time off to care for children. and then on top of that we face discrimination for being lgbt…

  8. Sarah, since we both go to/went to the same school, I feel ya. It is entirely a business, solely based upon outward appearances. Sure, you can learn if you actually look into your classes and pay attention to the right professors, but the only way anything is going to change is if something awful happens. Hell, the only way this anonymous school started to see a little bit of the light was when a huge, racist act took place on the campus. Because of this they decided to hire a more diverse staff. BECAUSE of a racist act, BECAUSE their PR image of being a “diverse” school was tarnished, they decided to take action.

    I am so frustrated with this business model. Diverse students are brought in and plastered all over the fancy new ~high tech~ facilities for the “special majors” when the older buildings on campus for the gen ed classes and for the rest of us non science, non specialized majors (i.e. english, art, philosophy) have to deal with cramped, often windowless rooms where the computer lab looks like a stone tablet lab compared to the high tech BS down the street (HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO TAKE A CREATIVE WRITING CLASS IN A CELLAR). Our money goes towards new dorms so we can bring in EVEN MORE students to a university that is bursting at the seams. Students have to actually search through all the crap to learn and many of them end up not seeing the point of making the effort.


  9. My university just upped tuition by $3,000/year and cut every college’s budget by $50,000 without informing them so that they can build a law school and law library FOR A PROGRAM THAT DOESN’T EXIST YET.

    Tell me that’s not fucked up.
    This is only one of the many problems.

    Everything is wrong with college these days. I loved college as an experience and I got a degree in a field I am truly passionate about, but the price–financial and personal–is outrageous.

  10. Wow, this helped a lot. I start university in the Fall and I’m definitely stressing! This made the stressing a little worse but at least now I’m more aware. :]

    • I know how you’re feeling. I’m starting school in the fall too, and all of this panic over a dismal job market is really sending chills down my spine. I really hope the economy will get better over the next four years but until then I guess I’ll have to practice my burger-flipping skills.

  11. okay so i need some advice. I’m starting my senior year of highschool and after i graduate I’m planning on going to a four year but after reading all these scary stories about student loans and the outrageous amount of debt people end up with I’m not sure if thats the path i should take anymore. I was considering taking a year off after highschool to get a job to save up some money but thats all i could come up with. Basically if someone could give me some advice on how i should go about getting loans or any information you wish someone would have told you when you were my age would be great, thanks peeps :)

    • Here’s my advice: don’t blow off your standardized tests. Study your face off. Score as high as you can. Then go to a state school. That’s what I did, and by the end of it, they were paying me fifty bucks per semester to attend. That’s harder to accomplish in a recession but scores and scholarships are the key.

    • Take advantage of your local community college for your first four years – I wish I would have. (‘Course, my local community college when I graduated high school was one of the best in the US, but…)

      • yeah, or even the local state university. i took 6 years to finish my undergrad (hah), but it worked out okay financially cause the first three were at my local uni while i lived at home.

      • Just be careful how you do it–keep an eye out for university requirements for junior-college transfers. Some of them have a max number of credits you’re allowed to have before they force you to enter as either a freshman or not at all. Some of them are really weird about prerequisites for applying as a transfer student and it’s really goddamned hard to get anywhere when all the advice is geared towards high school students and your community college transfer counselor only knows as much as a cursory Google will tell them.

        If your local community college doesn’t offer certain higher-level classes, or if they’re not transferable, you might be better off going straight to university. Mine doesn’t have Organic Chemistry, it only has one, single Engineering Physics class in the fall, and a bunch of its arts programs and classes are losing teachers and funding at an alarming rate. Some kinds of art and science students find out they’re totally screwed only after they start applying to universities.

    • Oh and also take as many AP classes as you possibly can. That’s probably not as much help to you right now as it would’ve been two years ago. :( But paying $80 for an AP test that can give you as many as 8 or 10 credit hours is a lot better than paying $500 per credit hour.

      • Yes! AP classes + community college classes = LOTS O’ CREDIT.

        I’m going into school with almost enough credits to be considered a sophomore. It is at a public school though; I’m not sure the privates are quite as charitable as the others.

    • I would suggest everyone get born in Michigan, like I did.

      Anyhow, after boarding school I went to Sarah Lawrence for a semester and decided that for $45K a year, I needed to be way more happier than I was. After a semester spent fucking off in the city, I returned to my homestate and went to the University of Michigan which is a great school and my in-state tuition was $7,000 a year!

      A good idea is to take two years of community college and then transfer to a more prestigious University — you get the degree from the big-name school without having to pay for the first two years of it.

      That being said, although my English B.A. with Honors in Creative Writing has not gotten me one single job EVER, I loved school. The key is really researching the teachers/courses — a good teacher will make a class. If you take advantage of the opportunities and choose courses wisely you can get your money’s worth.

      • OH BUT ALSO

        U of M’s gym is CRAP. When I was there we needed a new gym more than just about anything else. It’s like four sweaty weight rooms, two stairmasters and an anorexic girl dying on a rowing machine. I had to join a private gym, it was pathetic. Meanwhile Sarah lawrence had a fancypants gym and the only people who used it were me and Wendy the Anorexic girl, ’cause the rest of the student body was busy getting stoned and talking about Proust. Such fun.

    • Often times community colleges near big universities will have arrangements that their kids if they reach certain benchmarks will be given preferential entry to the college. Look into that if say there is a fancy uni you want to attend, it might even be worth moving to attend the community college near by. Also, don’t be shy to straight up call up the admissions department and be like, listen hooker what do I need to do to get up in this business in an advantageous manner?

      Alsox2, WORK THE QUEER THING (and whatever else you got) for scholarships (from the university, national or state orgs, alum orgs, or even local orgs in your town). Those liberal elites* dedicated to diversity should give you a few props and a hopefully a few Gs.

      *I <3 liberal elites, hell I am a liberal elite.

      godspeed young padawan.

  12. My university did this to me and the rest of the student body back in the early 2000s! Okay, some of the stuff they built was necessary-ish (like a new building for the student health center so they didn’t have to be in the toxic mold portables, and I’m PRETTY sure the comms building has at least a reasonable amount of classrooms), but I’m still bitter about the rec center. (“Oh, don’t worry, the cost for this won’t be passed to the students!” (two years later) “Whups, that cost more than we thought! Here, students, have a $75 per quarter rec center fee!” -_-) From what I understand, they’re still building new buildings, although I’m pretty sure that’s because the state has a big problem having enough public university positions for in-state students who want them.

    And this in a university with such overcrowded student housing, they rent triple rooms that were originally built to house two people.

    The price curve on public four-year universities (which would describe my alma mater) is disturbing. o_O

  13. I’m afraid to look at what I owe for my student loans. This is bad, I know… but I’m unemployed and I have a marketing degree that’s just wasting away.

    Fantastic times right now, plus all the fancy stuff I paid for wasn’t completed until I finished school. You’re welcome newbies.

  14. I am *so glad* I went to an unknown state school for undergrad – it was MUCH easier to get (full) scholarships there. Then I made the mistake of going to a big top-10 medical school, dropped out, and have loads and loads of debt.

    So basically, we should stop being big-name-school whores… (?) I mean myself, and Americans in general. By the time I started med school, my tiny-state-school education proved just as good as my classmates’ Harvard / Stanford / Cal / etc. educations. If I’d stayed in medical school, then going to a big-name school would have probably been a decent move… what I want entering undergrads to “get” though is that if you’re going into a profession where you DO need an advanced degree, no one’s going to give two shits where you got your undergrad degree after you finish. Granted, it’s easier to get into professional school if you didn’t go to east bum-f*** university, but it’s do-able. And cheaper. Much, much cheaper. My scholarships PAID me to go to undergrad; my high school classmates looked down on my choice of college until a year in when I was picking up a check at the cashier’s office and they were taking out huge loans for bigger-name schools. Now, if only I’d not gone to a super-expensive grad/med school…

  15. Wow, your university system is very scary to me.
    I took a 2 year diploma program from a community college for pocket-change compared to what you guys have to deal with. I had a well-paying job waiting for me when I graduated, & in less than a year I was financially secure enough to buy a house.
    I was just lucky that this was the circumstance/outcome for the career I wanted, but sometimes you have to look at other education options- because obviously university degrees aren’t all they’re cracked up to be anymore. You can still achieve an education/future by other means- and don’t you dare let anyone tell you you’re any less for doing so.

  16. This has enraged me, and I’ll bore you with why.
    This is gonna be long, and the relevant part isn’t for a bit… sorry: The small private college I went to (almost a the college version of my small private high school, which I could only afford to attend due to a scholarship paying for 75% of my tuition, the other 25% being payed for by my dad getting a part time job at the school) promised me so much. They offered a lot of help, especially, with my SEVERE anxiety disorder. I did very bad my first semester, anxiety running rampant like termites in a vintage craftsman home, but the school was there to back me up. Counseling, weekly meetings, talking to my professors, all sorts of lovely crap that they offered and I accepted…

    …until they changed their minds. A week before I was supposed to go back from winter break, they called and said never mind, don’t bother. My grades weren’t good enough. I knew they weren’t. So did the myriad of people I had meetings with, and helped me plan out my ‘academic strategy’ for the next semester. It was clear this was an administrative problem. One office dealt with me during my crisis, but a completely different office decided to pass this judgment. I told them about my situation and they told me to call the woman I’d been dealing with all along. She’d fix it, they were sure I could win my appeal.
    But low, my academic liaison was on vacation. Nobody knew where she was, or how to reach her. My file was in her office. Could her assistant could get it? Her office was locked. Too late. My week to appeal was up, fuck me.
    So I was suspended. You know what else was suspended? My health care. I couldn’t (and still can’t) afford health care coverage and can’t receive counseling for my anxiety.
    That school was motherloving expensive, ladies. Does $25,000+ a year sound like my file should get locked in an office? SERIOUSLY? How much, I’d like to know, was spent on having no inter-department communication, and no electronic copies of files.
    I could go back after one semester, they said, if I got counseling.
    I can’t get counseling without health care. I can’t get health care without being in school. I can’t go to school without counseling.
    I know my grades were ultimately my responsibility, but they sold me a basket of false support. “We’ll help you, dear, but god forbid someone doesn’t enter your file into the computer, cause then you’re on your own.”

    That was 3 years ago. I’m going back to school this fall at the local community college (where everyone at the recent orientation was…you know, 17, and, well it wasn’t my first time at the rodeo). It feels a bit like a failure to me because I did very well in high school. I got into every college I applied for. School is what I’m good at. I like learning. I was in field hockey!
    Sorry that was so long. If was to teal a deer, I’ll understand.
    Also, I just signed up for my com. col. classes, and I immediately registered for Intro to LGBT studies. Let’s see the LGBT studies program at a community college in Iowa. *major trepidation*

    The End

  17. I agree wholeheartedly with this post and want to point out that colleges and universities are engaged in a recruiting arms race. They spend a lot of their money on infrastructure and construction because they’re building something tangible that will attract students and feed their iterative business model. More students equals more money, which they’ll spend on ways to attract more students. Universities are practically becoming cities. For example, my alma mater, the University of Alabama, has increased enrollment from roughly 20,000 to about 30,000 in I guess almost 7 years now. During that time of growth, we’ve seen new buildings, building renovations, the food court expansion, the recreation center expansion, new dorms, new roads, new parking, 2 football stadium expansions (combined cost > $100 million), new fraternity and sorority house (some to make way for the stadium expansions), new football coach (minimum $32 million salary), etc. During this same time, tuition has skyrocketed – my younger sister is paying almost twice as much as I did for college. Like Sarah says, funding comes from many different sources but not enough is being invested in the real reason you’re in college: to get an education.

    • This is a very good point. It also applies to public universities – after all, out-of-state tuition payers give the schools a HECK of a lot of money.

  18. There are so many other ways to negotiate life.

    I say this as a “semi-retired” 51-year-old in possession of income property that’s paid for and some money in the bank, a 10+ year relationship and no college degree. I’ve spent most of my life goofing off, frankly. You know, chasing girls, playing music, traveling (three continents worth). In fact, I’m goofing off right now by eavesdropping on you darling baby dykes!

    I haven’t had a “career” as such. I tend to work intensely in intervals, usually for a specific goal. I begin to resent all that time spent working when I could be visiting far-flung friends or sleeping in the desert. That’s just me, but my point is that you can do A LOT with less income if you play your cards right. (The actual playing of those cards is a whole ‘nother subject.)

    Don’t discount self-education. I have spent significant time in my local public library. I taught myself how to use AutoCAD, for example, and have used it in my jobs for the last 10 years or so.

    Yikes, this is starting to go on, and on.

    TL;DR: The mere thought of debt makes my blood run cold. I have been well served by avoiding it. You have other options! You’re darling.

    • Good to hear from someone with no degree. I’m also really hesitant to get into debt, “good” debt or otherwise.

      Is there anyone here who is 17 or 18 and isn’t planning on going the college route?

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