Still, extra money never hurts. “It’s marginal revenues that add up here and there,” says Kaitlyn Maloney, a consultant with the education-research firm EAB. Hosting weddings is just one of many noneducational “auxiliary” services that schools make money off of. Most conventionally, colleges collect fees from dining halls, bookstores, and parking facilities, among other things.
But there’s money to be made elsewhere. Research conducted by the Rpk Group suggests that campus spaces are used only for about a third of the time they’re available, and it’s not uncommon for colleges to rent them out for, say, concerts, conferences, bar and bat mitzvahs, and, yes, weddings. Many schools have even offered up vacant dorm rooms to visitors, Airbnb-style, mostly over the summer, but sometimes during the academic year, too. Others have gone as far as building campus-run hotels or retirement communities whose elderly residents can pay to audit courses.
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Pine Manor College, a private liberal-arts school outside Boston that has struggled financially, exemplifies this sort of creative thinking: In addition to hosting private weddings and other events at its well-appointed Dane Estate, Pine Manor rents out parking spaces to members of the nearby cricket club and contracts with movie studios that want to film scenes on its 50-acre wooded campus. Thanks in part to revenue sources such as these, “financially, we’re headed back up,” said Bill Blanchfield, who oversees special events for the college, when I visited the campus a few months ago.
In a survey of hundreds of colleges’ business officers earlier this year, four in 10 identified facilities rentals as an especially promising alternative source of revenue. The money generated from auxiliary services (including the modest proceeds from wedding-venue rentals) accounted for much of the uptick in revenue at research and graduate-degree-granting universities in the decade leading up to 2013, according to an analysis from the American Institutes for Research, a nonpartisan think tank.
Even if putting on wedding ceremonies doesn’t bring in a ton of money, it does give colleges some free PR, by luring attendees—some of whom may be unfamiliar with the school—to campus. And when alumni are the ones getting married, Maloney says hosting ceremonies is a way for a college to strengthen their affinity to the school, which might help with fundraising. Relatedly, in casual conversations, several students who’ve witnessed weddings taking place on campus told me those fleeting encounters reminded them how special their college was.
As colleges think about how to maximally monetize their land, resources, and facilities, there is, of course, a risk that they will lose sight of their central goal of serving students. This may be a risk with some entrepreneurial initiatives—for example, investing in a college-run media enterprise or “research park” that fails to produce the expected revenue and thus takes away from the funds that schools could otherwise spend on students. But weddings on campus seem to be a simple, harmless, and wholesome way to give both parties what they want: Colleges get a little money, and couples get a pleasant venue.