Student Life Column

Colleges should evolve from perpetuating educational superiority

Casey Russell | Head Illustrator

Old buildings might maintain the image of a university, but they do nothing to enrich the student experience.

When you think of the quintessential college campus, a very specific vision comes to mind. A grassy quad surrounded by old, ivy-lined buildings. A grandiose library. Frantic students rushing around as if they’ve just come up with the idea for the next Facebook.

You think of colleges such as Yale University, where even the new buildings look old. This fall, Yale opened two dorms designed to fit in with the campus’ collegiate gothic buildings — with a $500 million price tag, according to the Yale Daily News.

Like many campuses, Yale is built in the Oxford- and Cambridge-inspired architectural style you envision when thinking of universities. The problem is the overindulgent old-and-new buildings come at the expense of academics. By continuing to craft pretentious dorms and academic buildings, colleges reinforce the elitism of the schools and higher education as a whole.

The exterior of Yale’s dorms don’t match the ultramodern features you’ll find inside. And when you walk into old-looking buildings on many college campuses today, you’ll see state-of-the-art amenities. College gyms may feature rock climbing walls and dining halls house name-brand restaurants.

 

This ironic movement in collegiate architecture took off in the late 1990s, per Jeffrey Selingo of The Atlantic. As the first batches of millennials were graduating high school, colleges found that luxurious amenities helped them stand out and win these students’ attention and tuition money.

The push for this facade did not come cheap. Between 2001 and 2012, colleges’ debts rose 88 percent to $307 billion, per Selingo.

Colleges want to look like they don’t have money problems, so they appear to take students’ money and put it toward amazing amenities on top of a world-class education. Most universities hope these gambles will entice students to fill beds and classrooms. They usually don’t.

Instead, schools neglect to build up academic programs in favor of building campuses that look good on a tour. Universities have made budget cuts on academics to compensate for these new “super dorms” with amenities.

To add to the irony of this frivolous spending, colleges struggle to retain students for a full four years. Only about 40 percent of students at four-year colleges graduate in four years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Shorter college careers mean less revenue, making it hard for the colleges to pay back the debt accumulated by these new constructions.

Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, which aims to expand access to higher education, estimates that about 5 percent of Americans who graduate high school attend four-year colleges and live on campus.

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Andy Mendes | Digital Design Editor

The average college student is not the 18-year old college freshman we have at Syracuse University, but it’s still who we think of. And that’s a problem, said John Thelin, a professor at the University of Kentucky and author of “A History of American Higher Education.”

“It’s totally out of whack with the growing reality of who’s going to college and where,” Thelin said. “If you look at a full range of colleges and college students, there’s a large and growing number that have been barely making it financially, and they would like to avoid going into debt a lot, and they would settle for a leaner, less ostentatious campus and have tuition and fees be lower.”

Because colleges often follow other institutions, they can be out of touch with what students actually want. Thelin said boards of trustees “vary in how much they really know about colleges and students” and instead “get wind of what others are doing.”

“It’s a fad. It’s very hard to resist,” he said. “You don’t want to be left behind and you assume that you have to do it.”

That’s why, in the Syracuse area, we’re seeing a rise in luxury student apartments. But even though those private single rooms seem like the best way to live, they deprive students of what the college experience is all about.

They create isolation and loneliness, as students who live in them are not forced to interact and learn from those who are different from them. There is a loss of shared moments, of human contact.

Universities would benefit from focusing not on their national ranking, but on using student tuition money to foster stronger educational environments. After all, students may love living in a beautiful apartment in college, but they may reconsider that choice when they’re drowning in debt well into adulthood.

More than that, old-school architecture enforces the elitism that comes with attending a four-year college. Students are surrounded by buildings that look like they hold rare manuscripts, even if they’re only home to cluttered offices.

“Whether you have a good college experience is really kind of incidental with the architecture,” Thelin said. “If you have a good group of friends and you respect them, talk about futures and go to classes together, that social cultural experience is more important than landmark architecture.”

Those exterior shots that are slapped on brochures sent across the country may be nice to look at. But at the end of the day, they perpetuate the idea that educational superiority is what matters most on campuses.

Joanna Orland is a junior newspaper and online journalism major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at jorland@syr.edu.

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