It’s a truly misguided waste of resources from an educational standpoint, and a massive mistake, but it’s also perfectly rational from the standpoint of administrators trying to attract the most competitive students: these things work. Having the best faculty doesn’t work. Having a great graduation rate doesn’t work. Placing lots of students in jobs doesn’t work. What works is the “Club Med plus classes” approach. I have a lot of friends in the academy, in many different schools and positions, and what my admissions officer friends tell me is that internal surveys and research find again and again that students on visits comment on those facilities — gyms, dorms, and dining halls — more than any other aspect.
He goes on to argue that, “if our discussion of student loan debt and the cost of college is to be useful, we have to start to interrogate how undergraduates themselves contribute to these problems”:
Clearly, these students are part of a larger system that has failed many of them and many of the people like them, and ultimately accountability resides with the whole system. But it’s remarkable how much pushback I get from the very students who risk being saddled with huge student loan debt in their near future. When I wrote that piece about Purdue’s gym, I got praise and encouragement from professors, from administrators, and even from Purdue president Mitch Daniels himself. The people who didn’t like it were Purdue undergrads. I got quite a few nasty emails when that piece came out, from undergrads. The general sentiment was to ask, so you think we don’t deserve a good gym? I simply responded that it seemed sensible to me to build, say, a $15 million gym and save the $75 million to keep tuition down, maybe build a new English building to replace our current crumbling monstrosity. There was a total disconnect from the fact that a $90 million gym represents a huge opportunity cost, one that ultimately, they pay for, even if the gym was funded largely by outside funding.