In the coming weeks, there will be 35 college football bowl games played in the United States. Advertising prices for television ads during the national championship game are expected to surpass last year's Super Bowl. Students, parents, alumni and even fans with little connection to schools will spend freely to purchase their favorite college team's jersey, hat or pendant. Enthusiastic college students will display faces and chests painted with their school colors and wave their finger at television cameras to indicate that their team is number one.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted that the rising cost of college athletics has led to an alliance between Division I football schools and television: "TV has agreed to pump about $25.5 billion in rights fees into college conferences and their member schools over the next 15 years." The hope is that the investment will save both the networks and the schools. Cal Berkeley reportedly invested $321 million in a football stadium renovation, and the University of Michigan spent $226 million to do the same.
Administrators and coaches acknowledge they are locked in an "arms race" to provide the best facilities to attract the best players so that their teams can compete for national championships. At these schools, the buzz on campus, especially on game day, attracts students and keeps enrollment secure.
Those of us who work on college campuses know that the arms race is not limited to sports facilities. Enrollment offices recognize students are looking for the newest, most attractive workout facilities, dormitories and dining halls. At the same time, there is a national outcry against the cost of college tuition. For those schools without 10-figure endowments and an alumni base capable of fueling new construction, difficult choices have to be made.
It is a daunting challenge to sustain our broad and diverse educational activities in the face of severely rising costs and student expectations, even without large investments in facilities. Administrators are searching for alternative business models to survive. Many point to the online revolution that is under way. Online learning is sure to have an effect on higher education, but it will likely be less than many people expect. Most students do not have the ability or the motivation to become well-educated adults without personal encounters with a few great teachers and peers along the way. Until online learning is supplemented with alternative communities that can replicate those experiences, it will be a shadow of a worthwhile education.
So if not online, what?
At the 2012 Northeast Regional Ethics Bowl, 14 schools recently debated 15 ethics cases before panels of volunteer judges. These students prepared for months ahead of the event. And on the day of the event, "game day," they were nervous. Some overcame their nerves and presented well-organized, ethically substantive and compelling cases. Others didn't and failed to effectively articulate their argument, like a running back that fumbles on game day after having repeatedly run a play without blemish in practice. Teammates jumped in to carry the discussion forward while the primary presenter gained composure.
The military academies were conspicuous in their uniforms. Some schools wore coordinated outfits with their school colors, while others just dressed neatly. There were no fans, no concession stands, no television deals or advertising dollars flowing into schools as a result of their participation. Yet, the kernel of a different business model for higher education was at the root of wide-eyed conversations that poured into hallways and dining halls where students extended their debates between matches.
It cost a total of $3,600 to host the Ethics Bowl, but the substance of what took place was priceless. The intellectual and emotional engagement of these students was emblematic of what is possible and most valuable in a college education.
The school that has the courage and talent to convince families and donors that what we really want and need from a college education is found in what these students were doing has a chance to reverse the exploding cost of a college education. It doesn't cost hundreds of millions of dollars to become an educated person, to develop interests and abilities that go beyond what students bring with them to campus.
A good college education kindles curiosity. It develops the ability to think through complex situations from multiple perspectives, formulate logical arguments, articulate a coherent point of view, spontaneously respond to an unexpected rebuttal and, out of camaraderie and compassion, carry forward the argument of a teammate who is overcome with nerves.
One student did wear a pendant in her school colors. It had a simple message that colleges might consider making a centerpiece of their marketing and investment strategies if they want an alternative to the unsustainable arms race. It read, "Be a scholar."