Louisiana State University, whose president laments the decline in public funding for higher education, has a $1.5M lazy river forming the letters “LSU.” The University of Central Florida has the “Recovery Cove,” which includes a pool and a small lazy river exclusively for student athletes. These extravagances have been relatively modest compared to Binghamton University’s earmarked $60M gift from an anonymous donor to build a baseball stadium.
Something is wrong with this picture. Education is the engine of progress, more and more urgent as knowledge becomes a nation’s most valuable commodity. Ever since the G.I. Bill and subsequent reforms widened access to higher education from a primarily elite experience to an expectation for most young Americans, our universities have been a driving force for social mobility in the United States and a driving force for the economy.
But the sharp escalation in the price of a college education over the past four decades is one of the greatest threats to that trajectory. And when an anonymous donor shells out $60M for a baseball stadium at Binghamton University, while tuition rates climb far past the rate of inflation nationwide, philanthropy is failing to support higher education’s central purpose.
Building a lavish stadium with an earmarked donation is certainly preferable to dipping into taxpayer or tuition funds. If a donor really wants to fund a $60M baseball stadium in upstate New York that, due to severe winter weather, is likely unusable until mid-to-late March, well, c’est la vie. But with everything in life, there is an opportunity cost to consider. In 2018–19, the last year that the National Center for Education Statistics has confirmed, in-state tuition and fees at SUNY–Binghamton stood at $9,853. Thus, $60M could give full rides to 6,089 low-income, in-state students. Or the university could begin a campaign to discount tuition, which, adjusting for inflation, has risen 39% since 2008. Or, if Binghamton favors academic research, the donation could endow 20–60 professorships. All these options are preferable to a $60M baseball stadium for a team that plays roughly 10 home games a year. While the anonymous donor may have insisted on funding this project, there comes a point when university officials have a pedagogical and moral responsibility to channel negotiations toward a project that reasonably advances the core mission of the university—teaching, learning, and research.
Rather, the university has accepted the donation and has come up with academic justifications after the fact. The new stadium, so they argue, will build the university’s national profile, attract more students, maintain alumni support, and engage the surrounding community—all of which, in turn, will build Binghamton into a national academic and athletic powerhouse. In less words: If you build it, they will come.
The stadium-as-marketing strategy employed by Binghamton is, in many ways, indicative of the obsession with reputation and visibility that inflicts so many campuses. Any dubious investment can be justified if it contributes to a university’s “profile.” (This also ignores the fact that making it to the College World Series has maybe a tenth of the publicity value as making it to the basketball Final Four, not that Binghamton is anywhere close to qualifying for the College World Series. And even if Binghamton does gain more students via baseball, the university is competing in a zero-sum game, trying to attract students from other institutions rather than producing the actual value added of greater access that improves society.)
In other ways, Binghamton’s reasoning is symptomatic of bad choices that universities have borrowed from the public sector. Economists have been increasingly critical of municipalities subsidizing the building of sports stadiums, noting the opportunity cost of such an investment and that the promised stimulus can be created by the free market. In other words, the money spent on publicly-subsidized sports stadiums could be spent elsewhere, and while sports stadiums increase economic activity in and around the stadium, consumers would likely seek other forms of entertainment anyway, which would create the same economic impact. True, the initial capital investment is private funding in Binghamton’s case. But that does not mean the stadium will reap the benefits that university officials are promising, nor does it mean that it will not cost taxpayers in the long run, in the form of capital maintenance, marketing, and athletic recruitment.
In a short white paper, the St. Louis Federal Reserve advises against public investment in sports stadiums. “Rather than subsidizing sports stadiums, governments could finance other projects such as infrastructure or education that have the potential to increase productivity and promote economic growth.” It is a sad and ironic state of affairs when economists urge municipalities to invest in education rather than sports, and institutions of higher learning in turn choose to invest in sports rather than education.
Done right, higher education philanthropy can accomplish remarkable ends. It can limit the financial burden placed on taxpayers and families; it can fund innovative research that pushes the boundaries of human knowledge; it can maintain academic programs that are often financially neglected; and it can help raise colleges to higher standards. Instead, 2017–18 saw $46.73 billion of higher education giving, while tuition has increased nationwide and the student debt burden has reached $1.6 trillion. Those who give to higher education are not doing our universities any favors by funding endless capital projects, while ignoring very real issues that they could address. Donors who fund $60M baseball stadiums bear some responsibility for the state of higher education today, as do colleges, who need to be better advocates of their educational mission.
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