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Are colleges spending funds wisely?

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By Rob Witwer

If you watched a recent college football game between the universities of Utah and Southern California, you couldn’t have missed a somewhat strange interlude when the announcers rattled off statistics about the amount of money PAC 12 universities are spending on stadiums.
The numbers were impressive, and eye opening. Stadium upgrades are under way at the University of Arizona ($86 million), University of California ($321 million), University of Washington ($250 million), Washington State University ($80 million), and the University of Southern California ($156 million).
That’s almost $900 million. By contrast, Jefferson County Public Schools, the largest school district in Colorado with 86,000 students, has an annual budget of about $970 million.
It’s not just large universities spending heavily on athletics. Kenyon College, an elite liberal arts college with an enrollment of 1,633, recently paid $70 million (about the same amount Jeffco will cut over the next two years) for a state-of-the-art facility. Google your favorite small school, and chances are pretty good that if it isn’t renovating old facilities, it’s demolishing them to make way for something more modern.
A publication called The Sport Journal notes that new trends in collegiate athletic buildings include juice bars, cafes, climbing walls, “rooftop facilities” and energy-efficient LEED-certification.
While we’re on the subject of higher education, consider the following: Paul Otellini, a member of President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, recently wrote in the Washington Post that during the past two decades, “the number of engineers U.S. colleges and universities annually send into the workforce has virtually stagnated at around 120,000. By contrast, roughly 1 million engineers a year graduate from universities in India and China.”
He concludes, “This education disparity threatens to slow our economic recovery, stunts our long-term competitiveness and leaves technology firms in a skills crisis.”
And according to Dr. Robert Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, “among recent graduates of four-year colleges, just 34, 38 and 40 percent were proficient in prose, document and quantitative literacy, respectively.”
It’s not like we aren’t spending enough money. Quite the contrary. We’re renovating football stadiums. And universities have no problem asking for more tuition, even in the midst of a recession. According to Forbes, “since 1981 the list price level of tuition and fees has risen sixfold while the consumer price index has only increased two-and-a-half times.”
Then there’s the debt, a predictable outcome of super-inflationary tuition practices. Atlantic Magazine recently published an article noting that student loans have increased 511 percent since 1999. We all know somebody, most likely somebody younger than we are, struggling to chip away at a mountain of student debt.
So what is all of this increased tuition and student debt going to? And is it serving the core function of educating our kids to compete in the global marketplace?
As families try to figure out how they can afford the skyrocketing costs of higher education, these are questions worth asking.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”