Class of Luxury

Have I just become an old crab or does the thought of a college dorm (sorry, residence hall) with a “heated pool, a hot tub, a sand volleyball court and four tanning booths” make you kind of cranky? Today’s Chicago Tribune reports on several luxe facilities featuring everything from walk-in closets to maid service, “communal” 47-inch flat-screen TVs to computer-linked washers and dryers. (The tanning beds, inexplicably, are at Arizona State.)

Not too many years ago I visited a college in Massachusetts that had just built a residence hall of six-person suites where each student had his own room, there were two bathrooms, and a kitchenette. Purdue’s $52 million (yes you read that right) facility also comes with a meal plan. Many living facilities are built with single rooms (some even come with private bathrooms), since most kids have grown up without having to share a room or even a bathroom, and why would they want to start now? My thought on seeing that dorm was, Why would I want to make my own food in college?

Although many of these luxurious accommodations come with a hefty premium tacked on to the regular room and board charge, they are being snapped up even in this economy. Nothing, apparently, is too good for current college students. As the Trib writes, “Tom Cheesman, architect of Purdue’s $52 million First Street Towers, said the residence hall is ‘essentially a hotel.’ He said it is especially attractive to ‘helicopter parents who want to send their son or daughter to college campus but give them all the luxuries of home.'”

It’s certainly a far cry from my freshman dorm at Amherst. I lived on the 4th floor (no elevator) with two roommates, neither of whom bathed much, in a room meant for one or maybe two. The fireplace and woodbox revealed the building’s early 20th-century origins, but the former had been blocked up so we relied on the inadequate steam heat that barely reached us in the winter and blasted us finally when it started to get warm. In the depths of a New England January we had an eighth of an inch of ice on the inside of our bedroom window. At least we didn’t have to cart our own wood for the fire.

Somehow, though, we managed to survive and do well. I had bought a new “record player” to bring (it also had an eight track player!) as well as an area rug, a desk lamp, and an electric typewriter I had gotten for graduation. A clock radio, too. Some books, and clothes, as well as some records came in a few boxes. My roommates brought even less. There were students who had a lot more than I did. One of my dorm mates had a huge stereo and a water bed; so I suppose those who had, brought. (One of the Purdue students has been “keeping 30 pairs of shoes at the ready and jamming the bookshelf with every episode of “The O.C.” and “Dawson’s Creek.”” Really? For what?)

But then I suppose we had less to bring and fewer, or at least different, expectations, about what to bring and what to expect about living in a dorm. As a kid I remember thinking that a “dorm” meant I’d be in a barracks with a lot of other people, a prospect that scared me. But I did like the idea of living with a few other guys. We didn’t share a lot but we co-existed pretty well. My living situations got slightly better over the years, but I wasn’t in it for the amenities, and reading the Trib article I felt glutted, overwhelmed by the presence of things in an environment where ideas and relationships should be dominant.

Colleges have been in an amenities race for some time now, building massive “fitness centers” and other facilities to attract students, and new dorms are no exception. I wonder, though, what it means to try to replicate what students have at home rather than having them experience communal or semi-communal living. Negotiating a bathroom with 30 other hallmates can be exasperating, but it can also teach patience and, well, negotiation; having to clean up after yourself (or, more likely, not) gives you a sense of who you are and a taste of living on your own. Trying as hard as you can to stay in your individual bubble seems sad to me–like going to Paris and never leaving your hotel.

Everyone romanticizes their college experiences so I won’t go on, but I do wonder what might have happened if Purdue had spent $52 million dollars on their labs and on faculty. Or if ASU had bought textbooks for low-income students instead of tanning beds. This kind of reckless consumption doesn’t bode well for the future.