College: Then & Now

Our daughter is a senior in high school, so we’re swimming in a sea of admissions brochures and ACTs. Of 529s and budgeting spreadsheets. Of unpredictable emotions and fear of the unknown—ours and hers. And yes, of college visits. It’s overwhelming, a little like buying a car. Screen Shot 2016-10-10 at 1.23.14 PM.pngWe’re kicking tires at campuses around the country, trying to help her narrow down her choices. We’re test-driving large, public universities and compact, private colleges, asking questions to get a feel for life on campus.

No matter the size or geographic location of the colleges we’ve visited, they all had one thing in common: Amenities. Amazing, alluring amenities!

Why this upswing in luxury living? Kids today are not basing their college decisions solely on academic programs. And college administrators who, in decades past, touted their well-stocked libraries and research opportunities, understand this generation of “buyers” has an extended range of priorities. In addition to demanding a well-rounded college education, this generation of students has high expectations for universities to provide the comfort and convenience of which they’ve grown accustomed. Gone are the dingy, institution-white walls and ho-hum common areas. Today’s students want big screens and hot tubs and custom decor. Oh, and parking spaces.

From Super 8 to a 5-Star Resort
These days, university administrators may feel they’re in the hospitality business as well as the education business. They splay resort-like digs across the marketing mailers sent to prospective students. New residence halls are built in apartment-style configurations with public lounge areas that resemble high-end sports bars. Admissions counselors boast of amenities like restaurant-style food services, on-site Starbucks and optional maid services. Campus tours include epic fitness centers with state-of-the-art equipment and Olympic swimming pools.

Colleges are pumping funds into housing and amenities to entice students and outshine the competition. Yes, they’re striving to keep up with the post-secondary Joneses. Not only are they improving traditional dorms, they’re adding housing options and accommodations for students with personal or academic needs and physical or mental health issues, including alcohol-free environments, gender-neutral housing, dietary-specific meal plans, mobility-enhanced residences, and academic-focused floors, to name a few.

These accommodations suit students just fine. Lexi, a sophomore at small, Midwest, liberal arts college, had concerns about living with a roommate after a tumultuous freshman roommate experience and some ongoing health issues. She was delighted when a single room became available and jumped at the opportunity. “It was exactly what I wanted—needed, actually—to have a clean, quiet environment where I could focus on my schoolwork and my health.”

Benefits of On-Campus Living
College administrators may have other reasons for investing in luxury on-campus digs. Research shows that students who live on campus—about 39 percent of all undergrad students according to U.S. News data—are more likely to stay and graduate with a degree than those who live elsewhere.

That’s fantastic news for worried parents and one reason many colleges require first-year students to live on campus. The launch into the freshman year can challenge even the most prepared student and living in university housing can help ease that transition. Students who live on-campus are generally more “in the loop” and involved in the institution. They interact more often with professors and peers, supplementing their collegiate support system. This on-campus living requirement can help the parental transition as well. After all, it’s not easy to let go. But knowing their students will have a strong support system on campus is key in empowering parents to stand back and allow them to engage in college life.

Back to the Future
As we strolled the manicured grounds on a recent college tour, I found my mind traveling back in time to my collegiate glory days of the late 80s. Tossed back into an era of big hair, corded phones and pegged jeans, I fondly remembered compelling professors and computer labs that contained mainframe computers as big as VW Beetles. It got me to thinking about the many changes on campus from then to now.

pay phone and landline wall phone

Boom Bscreen-shot-2016-10-10-at-1-06-28-pmox and a collection of cassettesscreen-shot-2016-10-10-at-1-03-29-pm
computer lab
posters of Tom Cruise and Scott Baio
country blue and mauve bedding
plug-in hot pot (for midnight mac & cheese or morning coffee)
hand-me-down dishes and utensils
worried parents letting go – writing letters & talking on Sundays
“residence hall”screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-1-11-36-pm
What’s a pay phone?
iEverything (iPhone, iPad, iMac, iTunes)
wall art with motivational quotes
mix & match bedding sets 
on-site Starbucks and convenience store
coordinated dishes from Target Home or IKEA
overly-attached, worried parents letting go – texting daily, Skyping on Sundays

Some Things Stay the Same
This walk down memory lane—fun while it lasted—made me realize that no matter how technology evolves or how luxurious residence halls become, some things on college campuses have not changed. The energy on campus still sparks with possibility. Lifelong friendships are still formed over study groups and midnight pizzas. College students are continuously growing their minds—in and out of the classroom—learning to adapt to unfamiliar situations, new people and newfound freedom.

And parents still struggle to let go.


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