The Edifice Complex on College Campuses

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‘The Edifice Complex’ on College Campuses

Many colleges and universities are using borrowed money to improve campuses in order to attract students. From dorms with single occupancy and private baths to state-of-the-art fitness centers, campus improvements may contribute to higher college costs for students. Called “The Edifice Complex” by some, the construction is motivated by a desire to build prestige for the institution. Edifice Complex is a play on words combining the imposing edifices (buildings) cropping up on campus with the psychoanalytic theory of the Oedipus complex.

Many colleges, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest U.S., face stagnating enrollment rates. However, students and parents today are often more concerned about price than luxury. The dismal economy has depleted college funds and parents’ earning capacity. Increased tax burdens for parents are causing greater frugality in college choices.

The New York Times obtained data from Moody’s credit rating agency indicating that 500 institutions doubled their debt levels from 2000 to 2011, to $205 billion. Although some of the colleges doing major building are rich in endowments, they are still borrowing to build.

Student indebtedness has reached the critical $1 trillion mark. Default rates on college loans are also at an all-time high. Job prospects for young people are dismal. This is causing students and parents to reconsider high-priced schools. Moody’s has “a negative outlook on all but the top state universities and private schools.”

Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder, who is also the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says, “The Edifice Complex pervading higher education flies in the face of other trends that call for caution in capital spending.”

Some campus spending is done to shore up older buildings for student safety. Other schools are adding lazy rivers and rock climbing walls to fitness centers. The Edifice Complex is contributing to higher tuition and fees for students, and often also to the burden faced by taxpayers through direct funding. Taxpayers are left on the hook when students are unable to repay their loans. (New York Times, 12-14-2012)