Textbooks stacked on top of spiral notebooks. Students encased in flannel. Radiators banging and clanking, telegraphing heat. College back in my time, the 1970s, was a place of mostly durable and simple stuff: supplies and spaces for debate, for scrawling things down, for looking them up. Like northern New England itself, Vermont’s Middlebury College felt just a little bit frugal. It excelled at opening and testing minds without also sticking undergrads in hock.
How things have changed. Just 40 years later, we’ve all gotten used to universities with rocketing tuition, to record levels of student loan debt (about $1.2 trillion so far), and — as if this were somehow disconnected — to a race to attract students by creating ever more elaborate venues for dining, wellness, and play.
Once a realm of mystery meat, student meals are going not just gourmet, but also vegan, gluten-free, free-range, and organic. The Princeton Review and others even rank dining halls, which these days have turned into food courts featuring everything from fondue to pho, from lobster bakes to make-your-own pancakes. UMass Amherst perennially finds itself near the top of these lists, thanks to stations for made-to-order stir-fries, sushi, and more.
On the fitness front, Harvard has capped off the third phase of renovations to its football office, locker room, and “football reception lounge” in Dillon Field House, featuring projection screens, couches, and entertainment systems. Students who didn’t make the team are anything but left out. The school touts its many squash and tennis courts, indoor cycling, cardio machines with flat-screen TVs, and “one of the best collegiate swimming facilities in the nation.” (Unlike Texas Tech, it doesn’t have an $8.4 million water park.)
Even dorms have gone upscale. Boston University set the bar high when it opened its 960-bed residential tower in 2009, with walk-in closets, private bathrooms, and sweeping views of the Charles. In late February, Berklee College of Music dedicated a 16-story glass-walled residence that, as a college publication put it, “offers Back Bay views that neighbors pay millions for.” It also has a fitness center, a roof terrace, and recording studios that “rival any in the United States, including commercial enterprises like Lucasfilm and the major Hollywood studios.”
More and more, I’ve begun to wonder not just about luxuries like these but also about educational extras of all kinds. Couldn’t there be a college out there that just says no to keeping up with the Berklees and the BUs?
What I’m imagining isn’t terribly radical. It involves stopping the arms race. It is, in the simplest sense, to refocus on the nuclear core of what makes college so important: a top-quality education.
Among the things I remember from my years as an administrator at Bryant University in Rhode Island is this: We administrators did not come cheap. And since we ran the place, we tended to bring more and more of our kind on board. We made sure we could find funding for our centers and special interests. We dreamed of a law school. We strategized about adding a football team and a stadium to go with it. (To be fair, a 2013 study found that less-elite schools attract more applicants through added amenities.)
Since I wrote speeches there, I knew the party line on cost. Rising tuition was because of “faculty pay.” I used to smirk when I drafted that line.
Setting tuition, for us, and for our peers, was not just about covering costs. It was, at least in part, about perception. If we came out lower than comparable colleges, we would, we thought, slip behind them in the minds of parents, counselors, and applicants. Somehow, we feared, we would lose “prestige.”
It is this idea, that more equals better — that more amenities, more administrators, and a higher price tag in some way indicate quality — that lies at the secret heart of stratospheric tuition and student debt. Not professor pay.
But back to the idea of a college, just one, that might refocus on its central reason for being. That might, in careful ways, uncomplicate its campus — so that more could come aboard.
Could it be my formerly frugal alma mater? I have my doubts, considering that it now costs about $59,000 a year, up from about $7,800 in 1979. Among other new buildings on campus is a ski-lodge-sleek 18,000-square-foot squash center, albeit one with the highest LEED rating.
Might it be the university where I worked? Not likely. A couple of years ago, Bryant finished moving its sports program up to Division I, including a newly minted football team with all the trimmings.
Still, I’m holding out hope that it could be the place where you remember studying, or where you teach or work. Let me know, so I can visit to admire the embellishments that it never built. So I can enjoy the absence of Pilates and, instead, run into students who are doing nothing more than exchanging ideas somewhere out on the quad.
Come lunchtime, I will brown-bag it. And bring a book.
Area schools on recent list of “The 30 Most Luxurious Student Housing Buildings”
No. 8 Simmons Hall, MIT — Award-winning smoothies, vegan dining, a giant ball pit
No. 13 Hurlbut Hall, Harvard — Fireplaces in many rooms (though non-working), library proximity
No. 15 Student Village, BU — Central air, fully furnished suites, killer views
Source: Best College Values
More coverage:Peter Mandel is an author of books for children, including “Jackhammer Sam” and “Bun, Onion, Burger.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.