Friday, November 28, 2008

Pretty Buildings

Starting from my own enjoyment of seeing first generation and working class students succeed in the college environment, I have to wonder not only about diversity as an end in itself, but pretty buildings too. There was a time when college students lived on dining hall food and in dorms that resembled army barracks. A drive through most college campuses today will reveal living suites, apartments, and often a brand new or freshly revitalized student center with wonderful eateries. A lot of this started happening when I was in college, with the new student union opening as soon as I graduated (sour grapes!).

This is no “kids these days” screed however. One has to wonder how kids who, as soon as they graduate are going to be living with their parents or in ratty apartments, can afford to live in such nice digs while in school. The answer is debt and the resulting money flowing through the collegiate system.

At the student level, student credit availability drives up prices. Instead of being a bridge for those students who almost can afford college, most students end up taking on some kind of debt. This means that everyone is approaching the system with more money. This in turn drives up the prices all across the market. The unintended consequence of this is that everyone ends up going to the same schools they could have afforded anyway, everybody just pays more.

At the college level, they are competing for students who have more money to spend. And to remain competitive with each other, they enable their own financial creativity to attract students often including new buildings. Colleges find they must do this to remain competitive, and even thoroughly mediocre colleges often have beautiful facilities. They may only have one weekend to wow a high school senior touring colleges, and the place must 'feel' right to the prospective students.

Then again, walking on campus as faculty, one starts to think about it a little differently. We are not providing the students an education but rather a college experience. But what is a college experience for? I think of the goals of education being twofold 1) teaching the liberal arts and sciences, and the ability to think critically, and 2) make the students more employable. I am not sure that either of these goals is necessarily served by a college experience.

The real sadness is that the goals of education need not be expensive. But a college experience is. And looking at students taking on non-bankruptable college loans to live in luxury for a few years while they are so young is very disheartening.

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