Jonathan Zimmerman: Have you noticed that dorms now look like hotels?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman (jlzimm@aol.com) is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."]

Thousands of Americans will travel to colleges and universities this fall for "parents' weekend." They'll wander leaf-strewn lawns and quadrangles with their sons and daughters, asking earnest questions about courses, sports and friends.

Later, when they retire to the local Hilton, Sheraton or Holiday Inn, they might notice something funny: It looks a lot like their children's dormitory.

Dorms are changing - to resemble hotels. Student centers have gotten makeovers, too. They look like museums or corporate office buildings.

At elite private universities and even at some public ones, students have nicer facilities and services than their parents could have imagined. That raises big questions about what we're teaching this generation, and why.

Consider George Washington University in Washington, where incoming students receive engraved chocolates under their pillows during freshmen orientation. Or Ball State University in Ohio [ed. -- Indiana, actually], which just opened a $36 million residence hall featuring mobile furniture, a digital music lab, and a dining hall that takes online take-out orders.

Plasma TVs? Got 'em. Refrigerators and microwaves? Check. Fitness center? Of course. Weekly housecleaning service? For an extra fee, it's yours.

That's hardly the kind of luxury that Princeton president Woodrow Wilson envisioned a century ago, when he commissioned a new set of residential buildings. Wilson worried that too many students had moved off campus into "eating clubs," which separated them according to interests, tastes and wealth. Better that they live together in monasterylike brick or stone dormitories, sealed off from the world.

"A university was conceived as a place where the community life and spirit were supreme," wrote one Princeton architect in 1909, three years before Wilson entered the White House. "It was a walled city against materialism and all of its works."

After World War I, Harvard erected seven new dormitories along two sides of its famous yard. Featuring elaborate outside details but humble interiors, the dorms created a literal and symbolic divide between students and the surrounding city.

At new women's colleges, meanwhile, educators feared that off-campus boarding houses would lead innocent young women astray. So they took special care to construct solid but simple dormitories that would place all students under college supervision - and on equal economic footing.

"We have a chance to see what the human spirit can do when unhampered either by deprivation or by excess," the dean of Smith College wrote in 1919, praising a new set of dormitories.

The big boom in dorm construction occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, sparked by massive state and federal spending. In 1958, the University of California's nine campuses could house only 2,900 students; by 1970, they had residential space for nearly 20,000. Despite some new architectural styles, most of these dormitories were built in concrete or cinder block - functional, not fancy.

Fast-forward to the latest $22 million dormitory at Tufts University, offering suites with two large singles off a sunlit living room. Each has a dining room with a glass table and a kitchen with a dishwasher. "This is like going from Amerisuites to the Ritz-Carlton," a Tufts senior told the Boston Globe last month.

Get it? The dorm really is a hotel, and it just got way nicer. That's bad news for anyone who cares about the future of the university.

By providing really nice things for our kids, we're teaching them to expect such goodies as their due. And we're forgetting the older collegiate ideal, which prized the life of the mind over the lure of materialism.

Only a segment of students can afford the new luxuries, of course, which only makes matters worse. More colleges now price dorms at different rates, depending on how many bells and whistles are included. So rich kids get the fancier residence halls and poorer students the older ones, which yields exactly the economic divide that Wilson and his generation wanted to avoid.

How did we get here? As government aid has declined, colleges chase the students with the most dollars. The best way to do that is to offer really cool amenities. University presidents may not like catering to the whims of already-privileged 18-year-olds, but competing schools are doing it, so what choice is there?

During the Cold War, that kind of thinking was called "mutually assured destruction." At universities today, the era could be called "mutually assured consumption." And we're all impoverished by it.

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Patricia Quinn - 10/24/2007

FYI - Ball State is in Muncie, Indiana -- not Ohio. The dorm that you are refering to is the first new dorm on campus in over 40 years.

Phil Wolfe - 10/24/2007

Just an FYI... Ball State University is not located in Ohio as stated in the article. It is located in Muncie, Indiana.

Beautiful campus, great school (and I am not affiliated with the school).