By Jesse Saffron

Andrew Rossi’s documentary Ivory Tower (2014) deftly captured the ostentatiousness of higher education’s amenities-industrial complex. Accentuated by ominous background music, its panoramic images of massive campus buildings, recreation facilities, and upscale condos, er, “dormitories,” showed just how rapacious schools have become in terms of luring students and the federal aid dollars trailing them. I watched the film last year at a screening hosted by the University of North Carolina system and, afterward, heard officials say things like, “That movie really makes you think.”

If only they had thought harder. The UNC system’s Board of Governors just signed-off on NC State University’s plan to build a $15 million, 62-bed dormitory for men’s and women’s basketball players. Funded privately by a booster organization, the residence hall will feature a “community space,” study rooms, and a laundry facility. Per NCAA rules aimed at curtailing special benefits for athletes, 51 percent of residents will be non-athletes. Beds that cost more than $240,000 must be available to all comers, you see.

Not that NC State students will be wanting for new digs. A nearby $80 million private student housing project is set to open next week. Studio apartments are going for $1,115 per month. Rooms in four-person units, $740 per month. Apartments will be fully-furnished, Internet included. Residents will be able to enjoy a saltwater pool, game room, and large fitness center. And, to help students prepare for their late night study sessions and the rigors of college coursework, tanning beds will be provided, ultraviolet at the ready.

Private developers aren’t the only ones interested in new construction. North Carolina’s House of Representatives recently proposed a bond package that sets aside roughly $900 million for new building and renovation projects at the state’s 16 public universities. Discussing the plan, a state legislator said that “[education is] the silver bullet for so many of our ills.” Higher education, at its best, improves students’ thinking and communication skills, enhances understanding of science, history, and politics, and fosters deep appreciation for literature and art. Such broad learning, though increasingly rare because of lowered academic standards, produces significant social benefits.

But conflating support for higher education and support for new campus construction is misguided at best—especially when taxpayer dollars are on the line. With some UNC schools struggling to maintain enrollment and others ramping up their online course offerings (today, about 9 percent of students in the system are fully online), it’s hard to justify such major building expenditures. Besides, a recent employer survey revealed that system graduates aren’t prepared for work in terms of their written and oral communication. It’s difficult to see how new buildings will fix those deficiencies.

For years, reform-minded commentators have questioned the appropriateness of colleges’ lavish spending on buildings and other amenities. They’ve warned that such activity is unsustainable and detracts from what should be mission number one in higher education: to provide a rigorous educational experience. Policymakers, however, have been able to ignore such admonitions because federal and state dollars have continued to flow to financial aid, providing universities (and some of the private industries that cater to them) with a steady stream of student-customers who often demand deluxe facilities. So long as that’s the case, education will remain in many instances a secondary priority, and university leaders in North Carolina and elsewhere will have every incentive to grow their portfolios of bricks and mortar, even at the expense of academics.