In recent years, unthinkable amenities like tanning beds, poolside cabanas and spherical “nap pods” have taken the place of dismal dormitories and labs in universities across the country. The phenomenon of “country club” colleges refers to mostly middling universities that have diverted funds from academics towards opulent facilities in an attempt to lure students. While Duke may not fall into this breed of resort colleges, the University still participates in an amenities arms race among elite universities. Is Duke merely fighting a necessary battle in the competition for applicants, or do our investments send a certain signal—perhaps wrongly—about our educational priorities?
Researchers at the University of Michigan found that while academic investments are still worthwhile for selective schools, less selective ones benefit more in enrollment from investments in “consumption amenities”. But even at top schools, flashy marketing and amenities spending has become a prerequisite for attracting the best students. Duke is not immune: It is obvious why tours go through the Link but not the bowels of Bostock or the Physics Building. But the diversion of academic resources toward superfluous amenities threatens an institution whose primary goal is still academics, not leisure.
To a certain extent, Duke is forced to participate in the amenities arms race. It is easy to see how a confused high school student struggling to distinguish between academically comparable schools would subconsciously rely on tangible factors to decide. A school’s amenities may seem like a meaningful heuristic: One might suspect that the more money a school spends on flat-screen TVs and undulating chairs, the more it spends on academic resources. The seemingly minor amenities might have an aggregate effect: If our peers have rock walls and we do not, perhaps we will suffer the consequences in the quality of our incoming freshman class.
Yet we can imagine the ways in which amenities spending detracts from Duke’s academic health. First, we live in an imperfect world of budgetary constraints, where a dollar spent on a motion-detecting media wall may mean a dollar not spent attracting top professors, new programs or undergraduate research grants. Schools like Harvard and Yale, whose endowments are three to five times the size of Duke’s, may be able to spend liberally on both—we, however, cannot afford to do so.
Secondly, swanky amenities say something about a school’s priorities and where academics rank among them. Though the Office of Undergraduate Admissions’s website and tours do emphasize our unique academic offerings—interdisciplinarity, undergraduate focus, approachable professors—concluding an information session with an image of a Duke-stamped waffle does not exactly signal academic quality and rigor. The admissions office should be as careful when determining how to emphasize amenities.
As much as we cringe at the notion of commercialized “country club” colleges, Duke is not entirely immune to the phenomenon. Amenity accumulation is not inherently bad—one could argue many amenities, like exercise machines or well-appointed dorms, ultimately further Duke’s educational goals. But a proper balance is necessary to ensure that academics remain the primary reason students apply to and choose Duke. The University should make a concerted effort to show applicants not only why we came to Duke, but the reasons why we stayed here.