BU’s not-aesthetically-pleasing Mugar Library.

With college tuition higher than ever and total national student debt  exceeding an astounding $1 trillion, universities are facing a widening crossroads between the wants and needs of their students, as well as their own survival and place in the rankings. Many students have high expectations of their schools if they are going to be committing four years of their life and thousands of dollars.

A recent article by Inside Higher Ed cited research by the Cambridge-based National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that showed most students actually value so-called “consumption amenities” more than academic ones at a college. It also found that in attracting potential applicants, colleges are better off investing in and advertising their amenities like nice dorms and state-of-the-art athletic facilities rather than high-quality research capabilities and/or outstanding faculty.

The research also shows that colleges, all who want to move up in their rankings, won’t get there by investing mostly in academics. Colleges, particularly second-tier ones, will find more success in bettering their consumer-driven facilities because these initially rein in people who are shopping for schools.

This news is two-fold to me. I expect my school to be of top-notch academic quality for the price tag. At the same time, I cannot accept that a school might put its amenities on the back burner because it’s investing elsewhere. I hate that at Boston University, professors are still struggling to scribble on old blackboards and Mugar Library looks and feels more like a utilitarian governmental complex than a point of pride on campus. Meanwhile, our athletic facilities seem to be upgraded every year. I expect the quality of facilities–and not just our hockey arena or gym–to reflect BU’s commitment to all of its students.

I talked to some other students in the Boston area about what they think a college’s responsibility is and how its spending should reflect that. I wanted to find out whether my peers really do reflect the claims made by NBER. What do students really look for in a school, and do they care how and where their money is spent?

“A college’s main responsibility should definitely be its academics and their budget should be allocated accordingly,” said Melissa Adan, a junior at Boston University. She acknowledged the reason she chose to come to BU is because she believed the school’s academic programs, not its facilities, could steer her toward a “prosperous future.”

Adan continued, “The purpose of why I am attending a university is not about what facility my college has over the one down the street. It’s about what program offers the best path for my future academically … BU is rich with resources in all aspects, but my reasons to attend never relied on if I could live in StuVi [BU’s fancy new high-rise residential apartments for upperclassmen] or go rock climbing.”

Nicole Muther, a junior at Brandeis University, admitted she thinks that a college’s nonacademic amenities are actually just as important as the quality of its academics. “A college’s main responsibility should be to foster a safe and stimulating environment for its students to learn … With so much knowledge available at our own fingertips, I think it’s futile to spend more money on professors who are more accredited or famous than their peers.”

Muther said, for example, if a campus doesn’t have up-to-date technology for students, “having notable professors will not do much to foster the educational environment. There needs to be a mixture of both. But in this day and age, it’s absolutely imperative to focus on non-academic amenities.” Muther also noted that she has been observing that Brandeis is taking in more students each year but its facilities aren’t expanding, which is why she is pro-amenities.

I asked a few of my friends really quickly whether they cared how their tuition money is spent by their school. Most said yes, but we’re never really told where our money is being invested in. I had a friend tell me that she doesn’t care simply because it “doesn’t make a difference at a massive school like BU.” This is interesting because BU recently launched a huge campaign to raise $1 billion in the next five years. It raises the question: What concrete changes will all students be able to definitely see? Colleges should seek to make changes in the areas where the most number of students will be affected.

Additionally, harking back to a post focused on Mark Cuban’s take on higher education– the Internet has changed everything. We have access to anything and everything, so it’s sad if universities are not up-to-par with, or exceed, the technological standards that are pretty much set in every college student’s mind.

Sixty percent of people think the U.S. school system is “poor” or just “fair” and think an online degree is just the same as enrolling full-time on a campus, according to research by Northeastern University. Doesn’t this mean something? Doesn’t it show that universities really need to step it up and actually invest in making their campuses a place where people can actually benefit from being at? It says a lot about a college when people think sitting at home on their laptops gives them the same educational experience as physically being on a campus.