New American problem

The front page of The State Press on Friday was brimming with insightfully juxtaposed stories. Intentionally or not, the stories hinted at a growing problem at ASU: massively unsustainable growth.

The two stories demonstrated the power of spin machines. In one, the University was touting its highest enrollment ever — inching just north of 70,000 students and still the biggest in the country — and praising its record-breaking retention rate, which last year was a rather impressive 83 percent.

Great news all around, right? Not so fast, Sparky. Ask the nearly 200 kids relocating from Manzanita residence hall what they think of our bulging enrollment.

The other front-page story in Friday’s paper focused on how students are relocating to other dorms because Manzanita is in dire need of renovations but couldn’t move out until now — several weeks into the semester — because housing folks had to wait until “space opens up in other dorms.”

Dealing with the hassle of moving from dorm to dorm while trying to keep up on schoolwork is not the ideal way to start your freshman year at college. But hey, it’s OK, because enrollment is now bigger than the entire population of Iowa City, Iowa.

Welcome to the New American University.

Bloated enrollment continues to grow at an unchecked rate as the availability of on-campus housing options rapidly approach critical mass, as tuition rates soar amid heavy budget and scholarship cuts.

And this isn’t just happening in Tempe, either.

On the Downtown campus, the one and only on-campus residential hall, Taylor Place, is nearing full occupancy, with about 1,100 of 1,300 available beds taken.

In the past three years, Taylor Place has grown from about 350 students to about 800 and now 1,100. Considering many downtown colleges mandate that incoming freshmen live in Taylor Place, what’s the plan for next year?

Of course, housing is just one aspect of the college experience, and in the grand scheme of things, not too terribly important. Who cares where you’re living or if you have a housing option at all when you’re getting a world-class education? It’s that indelible classroom experience that makes ASU the “New American Place to Be.”

Except we’re seeing the same problems in classrooms due to our rocketing enrollment, problems greatly exacerbated by ASU’s continual merging of schools and colleges and faculty layoffs.

I share a 300-level history class in Tempe with about 40 other students. We’re in a small, cramped room in the Farmer Education Building. There aren’t enough chairs for all of us, so for the first couple weeks the Johnny-come-lates had to sit on the floor in the back of the room.

I counted all the heads in the room from my seat in the back row.

We weren’t just short on chairs. We were exceeding the fire marshal’s max occupancy mandate for the room, conveniently posted above the door for quick reference. Three people over.

It’s no wonder ASU’s rankings in U.S. News and World Report’s annual listing of “America’s Best Colleges” dipped this year, down from No. 121 last year to No. 143. This after President Crow and his New American University model worked so hard the last several years to inch ASU up that high.

But much like a booming market bubble before any inevitable bust, it was only a matter of time until the “massive growth at any and all costs” backfired. Things were seemingly improving under President Crow’s new and innovative university model — until that pesky recession hit.

“The U.S. News rankings affirm that Arizona State University is moving in a positive direction on all fronts,” Crow said after last year’s U.S. News rankings were released. “The University has welcomed more qualified Arizona students and continued to be one of the best universities in the nation, proving that accessibility and excellence can go hand-in-hand.”

Accessibility is a great concept when it comes to higher education, but at some point ASU needs to ask itself — at what cost are we keeping our doors open to everyone? When is ASU going to take a step back and do what is necessary to maintain the quality of education for those who are already here?

Will it be when we run out of on-campus housing? When students decide that paying a growing tuition of thousands and thousands isn’t worth sitting on the floor in the back of a classroom?

When administrators realize that cutting scholarships that lure the best and brightest — such as the drastic cuts to National Merit scholarships implemented this past year — is not an effective or responsible way to save money?

The economics of a university are complicated, but when rising tuition is met with a decrease in scholarships and unsustainable growth leads to students sitting on the floor in class or relocating out of their dorm, there’s a problem.

ASU is suffering from an identity crisis. It wants to continue to be what it has been for the past several years but is forced to cope with the harsh reality of today.

The Arizona Board of Regents is discussing the possibility of changing the way Arizona universities receive state funding — a change that would focus on retention numbers and the number of degrees awarded. Currently, enrollment numbers determine funding.

Maybe by de-incentivizing massive growth, ASU can refocus on what benchmarks higher education needs to be gauged by.

Commitment to quality, not growth, should be guiding our decisions.

That’s the kind of New American University I want to be a part of.

Reach Dustin at dustin.volz@asu.edu.