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Climbing walls and college costs

Amy Scott Jul 26, 2012

Climbing walls and college costs

Amy Scott Jul 26, 2012

Tess Vigeland: When people talk about the rising cost of college — as they are wont to do these days — the term “climbing wall” comes up a lot. As in rock climbing walls. At campus fitness centers.

The Wall has become code for the amenities arms race on campuses across the country. Colleges say students and parents are demanding this stuff. But at what price to their education?

We asked Marketplace’s Amy Scott from the Education Desk at WYPR to look into it.

Amy Scott: My search starts up in the air.

Scott: Remind me how high I am again?

Distant voice: You’re about 35 feet.

Scott: About 35 feet up in the air. It’s a little scary, but kind of awesome. 

I’ve scaled this towering mass of fake rock — microphone strapped to my back — to explore what’s become a symbol of the high price of higher education.

Tom Diehl: A climbing wall is something that is unique. We wanted it to be a centerpiece. It brings in students.

That’s Tom Diehl, director of recreational sports at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The climbing wall is the jewel of VCU’s new $46 million fitness center, which also includes four-full sized basketball courts. Then there are the pools — sorry, the aquatic center.

Diehl: This first pool is called our leisure pool. It’s got zero entry. There’s a vortex that the water swirls around. There’s a whirlpool.

People talk about how college gyms are becoming more like fancy health clubs. They’re wrong. This is way nicer than any health club I’ve seen.

Diehl: This is a marketing tool. We were behind the boat a little bit. James Madison had already built the facility, UVA had built the facility — all the schools that we were competing against.

And it’s definitely made an impression on prospective students. Campus tours always include a stop at the fitness center. Chris Griggs remembers when he was shopping for schools.

Chris Griggs: Uh, yeah. I thought it was pretty huge. It was pretty ridiculous, but it was pretty cool. I liked it. So, impressed.

Now Griggs is a junior and a climber — along with thousands of other students.

Scott: What got you into climbing?

Griggs: Uh, just trying to look good for my girlfriend.

Scott: Really?

Griggs: Yeah, pretty much.

Not all that different from what VCU is trying to do, actually. It’s courting students and their families, who figure — if they’re shelling out tens of thousands of dollars a year — the living should be good. Schools everywhere are putting up hotel-like dorms, dining halls that serve steak and sushi, along with state-of-the-art science and engineering buildings.

But at what cost? The same year the gym opened in 2010, tuition and fees at VCU — a state school — jumped 24 percent.

Scott: Did the gym have anything to do with that?

Pam Lepley: Uh, about $14 per student’s worth.

That’s Pam Lepley, head of university relations. She says student recreation fees have gone up about $14 a year since construction started — around $100 total. Students actually lobbied for the rec center and voted to approve the increase.

So what about that big jump in tuition? Lepley says that was to make up for about $35 million in lost state and federal funding. John Nelson with Moody’s Investors Service says the campus building boom has played a role in higher college prices.

John Nelson: But the largest and by far the main contributor in the public sector is the decline of state funding, because those dollars have largely had to be replaced by student tuition and fees.

We’re talking roughly $6 billion in funding cuts nationally last year. Next to that, a quarter of a million dollars for a climbing wall looks pretty paltry. And at VCU, junior Max Gaied says he’s happy to pay a little more in fees for the luxury.

Max Gaied: Everyone has identity issues when they come to college or whatever. And, like, it’s pretty much how I found myself when I got here. Like, started climbing, you know, got more and more into it.

Then again, those fees aren’t exactly coming out of his pocket.

Gaied: I rely on loans. So why not, as far as I’m concerned?

Scott: How much are you borrowing to go to college, do you know?

Gaied: A lot. A lot. It’s like a life tax. You know, like, if you, if you want a job, and you want to, like, go about your life and your business, it’s just something you have to pay. Like a car payment.

And that may tell us more about the rising price of college than any climbing wall or zero-entry pool. The sense that a degree is still worth it — at any price.

In Richmond, Va., I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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