By Gabrielle Cowand and Laura Woodliff
With the recent advent of viral "listicles" offering headlines that flaunt "The 25 Most Amazing Campus Student Recreation Centers," "The 30 Most Luxurious Student Housing Buildings," and, of course, "10 College Amenities So Insane You'll Want to Go Back to School," it's safe to say that college hopefuls have much more to consider when selecting a school than simply its academic reputation.
The 'education' component of higher education is taking a media-driven backseat in favor of the sexier, more sensational elements of the college experience.
While resort-style steakhouses and beach clubs may be over-the-top, the raw numbers suggest that the construction of new campus amenities across the country might be warranted. Undergraduate enrollment has increased by 30 percent since 2000, and is expected to continue an upward trajectory. James Kadamus, senior advisor for Sightlines, found that among newly-constructed, non-academic campus amenities, 35 percent were devoted to new living spaces.
New dormitories and academic spaces must be built to fit growing demand, but with costs of renovations and upkeep, universities must weigh the reality of heavy financial burdens against the potential to attract prospective students. While Georgia schools have managed to avoid them, some universities have introduced capital renewal fees in order to help offset the costs of building maintenance.
However, it would certainly come as no surprise if the state introduced such a fee. Georgia schools are doing more than their part to keep up with the nation's amenities arms race, from Georgia Southern's on-campus planetarium that hosts dozens of free shows, to SCAD's modernized, luxury dormitories, to Mercer's adoption of The Grand Opera House. Rock climbing walls ranging in height from 35 feet (Georgia State) to 44 feet (University of Georgia) and bowling alleys (Emmanuel College) indicate a trend toward massive, modernized recreational centers.
"When students come visit, one of the things they show the most interest in, aside from the optional meal at the end of the tour, is definitely the rec center," says Georgia State University tour guide Ivan Lichtenstein.
These centers are becoming even trendier with the implementation of impressive aquatic facilities; Valdosta State's heated swimming pool and Georgia Southern's whirlpool and dry sauna options are mere whispers of what can only be described as state-of-the-art water parks offered at Columbus State and Georgia Tech. Columbus State's aquatic center includes a lazy river and a 40-person "therapy pool," while Tech has installed a 184-foot water slide alongside a leisure area replete with hot tubs, a current channel, and a spa.
As colleges tout spacious recreational centers and five-star dining facilities, a notable disconnect has emerged between the priorities of students and parents.
Parents are more drawn to academics and safety information," says Liana Mosley, a tour guide at the University of Georgia. "But for students, the big draws are food, sports, and campus culture.
With five dining halls (including one that is open 24/7), a food truck, and an array of on-campus eateries including a new Einstein Bros. Bagels and Caribou Coffee in the Student Learning Center, UGA boasts one of Georgia's most enviable campus dining experiences.
"My friends at GCSU and [Georgia] Southern, they talk about going to 'the' dining hall. I'm like, 'Which one?'" says University of Georgia senior Madeline Hosack. "It's really crazy how different UGA's food situation is...both the quality and the amount."
While the University's devotion to meals may seem ridiculous to the average Georgia college attendee, the inclusion of so many dining options is as practical as it is luxurious. With 36,000+ students, UGA is by far the most populous college in the state; in order to avoid lines of disgruntled students, the school must implement dining options proportional to their student population. Many amenities (especially at large universities) that are implicated as part of a shallow, financially irresponsible arms race are ultimately grounded in practicality. Grand numbers of students call for grand expenditures.
Whether these Georgia campus luxuries are a sustainable means of improving students' quality of life or a short-sighted financial mistake remains to be seen. Most likely, it's a bit of both. But with student expectations rising as colleges continuously rebuild and renovate, the race to impress through non-academic means shows no signs of slowing down.