Here's a story, ripped, as they say, from the pages of last week's Indianapolis Star.
"Today's Indiana dorm rooms are nothing like your grandma's dorm room — in most cases" read the wordy headline over a feature by Stephanie Wang about the posh approach Indiana's state universities are adopting toward new student housing.
Wang's story focused on three recently completed dorm upgrades. At Indiana State, in Terre Haute, Erickson Hall has just received a $10 million upgrade. In Bloomington, Indiana University has unveiled a new, $35 million residence hall. And in Indianapolis, IUPUI has spent $5.5 million to convert the University Place conference center and hotel into University Tower, a high-rise dorm, complete with a penthouse.
"Forget the Spartan cinder-block rooms of yore," wrote Wang. "Think semi-private baths, high-rise downtown vistas and arcade-like community game rooms." While Wang observed that some of these changes represent necessary infrastructure upgrades — rooms finally wired for Internet and wireless — she noted that these new or improved dorms also represent an effort by the universities to keep up with trends.
Tom Morrison, IU's vice president for capital planning and facilities was quoted: "Students come to us today with different expectations for living arrangementsÉTheir perceived needs are different from what it was a generation ago."
What's wrong with this picture?
Not a syllable in Wang's story addresses the fact that these building projects are taking place at the same time that college tuition and expenses has skyrocketed through the stratosphere.
Tuition, we know, has far outpaced the rate of inflation over the past 30 years. But so have university living expenses. According to the Christian Science Monitor, housing and food costs at four-year state schools have ballooned along with tuition rates. The bottom line is that an average graduate from, say, IU Bloomington, leaves school more than $27,000 in debt.
Given these circumstances, it's easy to rave on about the messed up priorities of university administrators and trustees who tempt students (and their parents) with spa-like housing they really can't afford. It's tempting to think that if we could just simplify things, go back to the comparatively funky living arrangements of earlier days then, perhaps, the cost of that college degree might be more reasonable.
But something else is going on here. The penchant of colleges and universities to build facilities beyond the means of most students and their parents has been unabated for such a long time, in spite of chronic complaints about high costs, that it begins to look like a kind of plan. Call it the corporatization of higher education.
Higher education in America was revolutionized when the Baby Boom came of age. As Clark Kerr, president of the University of California at Berkeley put it in 1962: "The university is being called upon to educate previously unimagined numbers of students; to respond to the expanding claims of national service; to merge its activities with industry as never before."
Things ended badly for Kerr. The Free Speech Movement took hold during his time at Berkeley, and proved to be a precursor for student protests that would roil campuses for the rest of the Sixties. Kerr was fired at the behest of then-Gov. Ronald Reagan.
But Kerr's vision of the merger of university and industry would ultimately prevail. Today corporate sponsors are all over campuses, providing everything from endowed chairs to new facilities.
Some consider this a lucky break. As legislative funding for state schools has been cut, and cut again, campuses have had a greater need for corporate sources of revenue.
Corporate contributions, though, have come hand-in-hand with corporate culture. The college experience has been monetized as never before. If incoming freshmen have expectations about their housing, proliferating university administrators harbor notions of their own about hierarchy. Many appear to want to regard themselves as peers with their corporate benefactors.
This merger of corporate and academic cultures, pushed along with the tacit approval of conservative state legislatures through diminished public investment, has not only contributed to higher costs, it has also forced students and their families to rethink what college is for. Gone are the days when getting a degree could be an experience of self-discovery. The specter of debt now makes every course subject to a cost-benefit analysis.
Student debt serves yet another purpose. Like the gallows, it has a marvelous way of focusing the mind. When people wonder what's happened to youthful protest, they should look at how federal student loans have more than tripled — from $5.9 million in 1965 to $21.6 million in 2010, according to Education Department data. A debtor student body is more easily controlled, less likely to take time off from class to organize the next Free Speech Movement.
But, hey: they've got WIFI and semi-private bathrooms. What's not to like?