September 09, 2019

College Campuses as Lifestyle Centers

Jonathan Wynn author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

“Welcome to our newly rebranded Lifestyle Spa and University! We aim to make sure that your stay as…” [Needle scratch]

Okay, college marketing is not quite like that. But, what is it that helped you make your decision to attend your college or university? Maybe it was the graduation rates, the faculty/student ratio, study aboard, or the financial aid? Was it because your parents were alumni?

What about the collegiate lifestyle?

A 2012 national study, The American Freshman found that 40% of students said that social life was part of their consideration.

Universities that used to highlight their research libraries to attract students now include their lifestyle amenities like fancy dining halls and student gyms to lure prospective students. Multi-million dollar gyms are important armaments in an intense intra-university competition. (Yes, there is a ranking of Most Impressive College Gyms.) Luxury dorms, equestrian programs, climbing walls, high-profile sports teams, aquatics centers to host pool parties, hundreds of student clubs, golf courses, food courts that look more like a great Las Vegas buffet. Washington State made headlines for boasting about having the largest Jacuzzi on the West Coast, able to hold 53 students. The growth of collegiate sports is a whole other aspect of the competition for students. One school boasts a $13.9 million, 11,000 square foot stadium video screen that casts light for 30 miles.

As someone who commuted to a large public university where the big news was that a Burger King was on campus, when I walk around the UMass Amherst dining hall I’m stunned. It looks more like a Las Vegas casino buffet than anything I would associate with an educational institution. (UMass is currently the reigning dining hall champion, four years running.) Crème Brûlée? Hong Kong Street food station? No wonder my students come late to class!

There is a full-scale amenities arms race for student enrollment. And even though the more spartan student experience I had back in the 1990s was common, this luxurification of college lifestyle is not particularly new. The New York Times occasionally writes articles on colleges and universities spending more money on these kinds of student activities, including articles as far back as 2003.

Student services are still a small amount of what students pay for, but the Delta Cost Project estimates that student services has grown 20%, or even 30% at many colleges and universities. These amenities contribute to rising student costs, whether students use them or not.

An 2014 article on this in the Chronicle of Higher Education (try to get access through your library) found that private colleges saw an average 21% increase in expenditures on student services, as compared with a 5% increase in spending on instruction, a 9% increase on expenditures on operations, and a decrease in spending on research, public service, and institutional supports.

Part of that increase is undoubtedly on new administration personnel, including mental health counseling. (Another important point: athletics is sometimes categorized as instruction and sometimes as student services.) The Chronicle article quotes Patricia A. Whitely, the Vice President of Student Affairs at the University of Miami, as noting how U of M had 18 sports clubs in 1995 and now has 48, and had roughly 190 student organizations but now has over 270.

Because economists have found that students who could have gone to an elite school but didn’t end up enrolling there learn just as much as they would have if they went elite , perhaps the lifestyle of the university is an important factor. (This what Bourdieu called the social reproduction of inequality: Women see a 14% bump in earnings when they have a degree from an elite university--but also a larger delay in marriage, childrearing, etc.—and less privileged students benefit from attending a selective university than affluent students do.)

What does it matter, you might ask? Well, one thing is that our colleges are becoming more corporatized, more advertising. The opening of article from The Atlantic on “The Shame of Collegiate Sports” was eye-popping: a sponsorship guru telling an audience of university presidents and chancellors: “There’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.”

As students are increasingly affected by state legislatures de-funding from state legislatures, the reliance on branding and sponsorship should be worrying. Since traditional colleges and universities are kinds of total institutions, what does this kind of commercialization do to our collective experiences.

But, I wonder, what does this change in lifestyle/culture mean for college students? Students will chuckle when reading this—but when I started out as a professor, I was a little surprised to learn that my classes really only represented a small sliver of students’ time and attention as compared with the more social aspects of college life!

(It is also possible that this is a fad that will pass? The Atlantic notes that universities might be fazing out luxury dorms—as they “threaten enrollment.”

It might be a useful activity for you to investigate how much Lifestyle Services—oops, I mean Student Services—expenditures are made at your institution.


Very interesting article! thanks

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