Next month, University of Wisconsin students will vote on a plan for the Division of Recreational Sports to raise $233 million [sic] through segregated fees. For such a large project, it hasn’t been much of a story in the broader Madison community, which is surprising considering how the college affordability crisis has caught on with the media at large.

The U.S. has more student loan debt than credit cards and car loans, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Students borrowed half a trillion dollars between 2007 and 2012, which amounts to as much debt as all living Americans who’d attended college before them.

One of the biggest boosters of skyrocketing student debt is semi-jokingly called the “amenities arms race.” With enrollment slowing and public attention focused on tuition, universities have turned to ever more luxurious dorms, dining facilities and rec centers to differentiate themselves and enhance their prestige.

It’s called an arms race because each project raises the bar for everyone. If Purdue builds an Olympic-size pool, Indiana wants one. Once Michigan and Minnesota put up suite-style housing, suites become the new standard. The pressure not to fall behind is immense but as long as everyone stays in the race, no one can possibly win.

Who’s keeping UW in the race? Not students. Four years ago, Rec Sports’ more modest Nat Up proposal was voted down despite $30,000 of student fees poured into the “yes” campaign. The 2006 Union South referendum passed only after DoIT’s mistakes on a separate issue led the Associated Students of Madison to write off two student rejections of the plan. It squeaked by on a third, unusually-low turnout vote held before finals with paper ballots.

The structure of UW itself keeps the race going. Like most big universities, UW is more a collection of fiefdoms than a unified whole: individual colleges, departments and divisions run largely on their own. An entity like Rec Sports is free to demand $233 million [sic] because no one in Bascom has the duty to ask or answer questions like, “Is this a reasonable addition to the total cost of attendance?” or “What overall program can we offer for how much a price?”

Further, student turnover creates short memories. After all, what’s another hundred bucks a semester? It may not seem like Rec Sports is asking for much right now, but that’s probably because you weren’t around or don’t remember when Biddy Martin asked, or WUD, or Housing, or Transportation Services, or the Regents or the state. All those hundreds of bucks add up.

UW likes to invoke the Wisconsin Idea (it’s crucial to Bucky’s brand) but today it seems to mean little more than doing what every other big university does. College affordability is a national crisis. Taking a first step toward ending the unaffordable, unsustainable amenities arms race — by sending Rec Sports back to the drawing board — would be the best example in years of the Wisconsin Idea in action.

Daniel Bush ([email protected]graduated from UW-Madison in 2009 with an MPA degree. 

Editor’s note 1: The author works for the Department of Public Instruction. His personal views do not reflect those of the State Superintendent, a member of the Board of Regents.

Editor’s note 2: The original version of this letter said the Master Plan would cost $233 million. It will cost $223 million, and the story has been updated to reflect the inaccuracy of the author’s figure.