By John Chandler
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are over 4,000 public and private institutions in the American college and university system. They awarded nearly three million degrees last year to more than 17 million enrolled students (think about that!). This multibillion-dollar system employs far more than professors — think admissions officers, tech staffers, maintenance workers, alumni/ae relations directors, athletic department personnel. And the fuel upon which this massive system runs is overwhelmingly provided by an ever-renewing supply of fee-paying undergraduate students.
Forty percent of the undergrad enrollees will never get a degree. Sixty percent will carry often-crippling student loans. Scores will come from families whose decision to support a four-year residential college experience for their children can only be described as financially ruinous. Many pay exorbitantly for what amounts to remediation from what they should have learned in high school. They would experience more lifetime prosperity if they instead took many general requirement courses for pennies on the dollar at local community colleges.
But they come in droves to college and pay handsomely for the privilege of doing so. How can we account for this inexhaustible pipeline of cash-bearing undergrads?
I would suggest that for all of their educational promises, colleges keep them coming because this “growing up” experience of self-improvement is going to be fun, fun, fun! College no longer promises in loco parentis, a disciplinary environment for shaping and monitoring its dependents for the formation of citizens. No, college today promises instead freedom and lots of it. It is a contract with adult consumers of an education, not an upbringing. Come to our school and you are going to have a good time. Blame it on Animal House.
In short, American colleges and universities sell themselves on the ability to help you have fun. The symptoms of this are not limited to athletic departments, though the University of Oregon’s 68 million dollar weight room (complete with 64 55” televisions and a custom football player’s barbershop) is out-front impressive. It can also be seen in the statistics that one in eight four-year institution undergrads live in a Greek house, which, let’s be honest, are pure playgrounds, and often lethal ones. Or cafeterias featuring Mongolian barbecues, dorms with Jacuzzis, rec centers with climbing walls.
None of this is to refute the undeniable benefits of a college education or smear every institution with the same brush. It is simply to point out the trend that dominates every aspect of American life is also king on campus: it’s all about entertainment. For all of the high-mindedness of universities, the students and cash keep rolling in because of the promise of edutainment.