The chapel at Keuka College, in upstate New York, is a campus landmark. Its Douglas-fir trusses, Italian-glass chandeliers, and custom-made pipe organ are so charming that many alumni choose to get married there. So do many non-alumni: About half of the roughly 18 weddings that take place at Keuka College in a given year are for couples without ties to the school.
Keuka, which sits on the shores of one of New York’s Finger Lakes, alongside the region’s vineyards, is just one of scores of American colleges that, recognizing the untapped value of their picturesque facilities, host weddings. Keuka College charges roughly $800 to rent out its chapel for a wedding ceremony, with a discount for those affiliated with the school. It’s not a ton of money, but it helps offset some expenses for students, says Karen Mann, who oversees special events at the school.
At a time when many higher-education institutions are struggling to stay afloat, every dollar counts. Colleges—especially those without big endowments—find themselves facing the dual financial challenges of reduced public funding for education and projected declines in enrollment. Alternative revenue sources that require minimal investment are an especially attractive strategy for defending against these trends, says Richard Staisloff, who founded and serves as a principal of the higher-education consultancy Rpk Group.
According to the latest annual survey of recently married couples by The Knot, a wedding-planning website, the average price paid for a wedding-ceremony venue is about $2,400 (though The Knot’s estimates probably run high). A review of 30 or so schools that publish their rates online or provided them to me suggest that by comparison, renting a venue on a college campus can be a pretty good deal. On the low end, $300 covers a one-day rental of the chapel at Wells College—another private, liberal-arts school in the Finger Lakes region—or a two-hour ceremony in the Baughman Center, the University of Florida’s “stunning, elegant contemplation space,” during the off-season. But prices can clear $3,000 at venues such as Columbia University’s Faculty House, which overlooks Manhattan’s Morningside Park, and UCLA’s “simple and elegant” Janss Terrace.
Yet price isn’t necessarily the main factor. For many couples, a school might hold personal significance if they met in their college days. Amanda Shaver, a wedding planner in Virginia, told me that the chapel at the University of Virginia is in such high demand that it uses a lottery to whittle down its waiting list and, during peak season, frequently hosts several ceremonies on a single weekend day. Alumni are charged $350 for a two-hour ceremony, and non-alums pay more than twice that.
For those who are unaffiliated with a school and choose to get married there, the reasoning is a little more conventional. Perhaps it’s simply a beautiful local venue that’s near or in a major city—such as Lewis and Clark College’s Estate Gardens in Portland, Oregon, and Endicott College’s Misselwood Estate on Massachusetts’s North Shore.
Whatever brings a couple to campus, colleges are generally happy to host them. A year’s worth of ceremonies is apparently lucrative enough for schools to create stand-alone websites advertising their venues, detailing their wedding packages and referring to members of their all-purpose special-events staff as “wedding specialists.” Lots of schools offer on-site staff such as sound technicians and security personnel, too. All of this indicates that hosting wedding ceremonies benefits colleges in some way.
That said, campus weddings aren’t exactly big moneymakers. The college representatives I reached out to declined to share financial specifics, but the available data indicate that the revenues from hosting weddings don’t make much of a difference in an institution’s operating budget. The country’s nonprofit colleges and universities typically spend tens of thousands of dollars annually on each full-time student to cover expenses ranging from instruction and research to housing and medical care; according to Education Department data, the average was close to $59,000 at private, nonprofit four-year schools in the 2016–17 academic year.
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.
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.