|It's only fitting that Whitman College, Princeton's new student residence, is named for eBay (EBAY) CEO Meg Whitman, because it's a billionaire's mansion in the form of a dorm. After Whitman (Class of '77) pledged $30 million, administrators tore up their budget and gave architect Demetri Porphyrios virtual carte blanche. Each student room has triple-glazed mahogany casement windows made of leaded glass. The dining hall boasts a 35-foot ceiling gabled in oak and a "state of the art servery." By the time the 10-building complex in the Collegiate Gothic style opened in August, it had cost Princeton $136 million, or $272,000 for each of the 500 undergraduates who will live there.
Whitman College's extravagance epitomizes the fabulous prosperity of America's top tier of private universities. Princeton and its "Ivy Plus" peers (the seven other members of the Ivy League, plus Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have long flourished as elite institutions, both socially and academically. Increasingly, though, their predominance is defined by the great magnitude of their wealth relative to their modest size and to the rest of the higher-ed universe. The gilding of the Ivies offers a striking manifestation of the contemporary American tendency of the rich to get much richer.
The question of whether all this spending is a good thing defies easy answers. Gold-plating new dorms raises issues of taste and donor ego. More than before, impressionable students and ambitious parents have come to view college as a form of conspicuous consumption. But there's no evidence that the tilt toward super-luxury on some campuses has hurt the quality of Ivy Plus education. Smaller classes draw universal applause. Graduation rates remain impressive, and products of the Ivy Plus schools continue to ascend to leadership positions in business, science, the arts, and politics.
However, the increasingly plush Ivy Plus model casts into sharp relief the travails of America's public institutions of higher learning, which educate 75% of the country's college students. While the Ivies, which account for less than 1% of the total, lift their spending into the stratosphere, many public colleges and universities are struggling to cope with rising enrollments in an era when most states are devoting a dwindling share of their budgets to higher ed. "Policymakers seem to have concluded that flat funding is all that public higher education can expect from the state," says Ronald G. Ehrenberg, an economist who directs Cornell University's Higher Education Research Institute.