Opinions, Column

What Makes American Colleges A Home

Although I am now old enough to receive frantic texts from friends that read, “Dude, I think I’m balding,” I still do remember the days of college touring. I remember being herded around with other sweet, innocent high school seniors to see new student centers filled with Nintendo Wiis and pool tables. I remember tour guides bragging about the quality of their universities’ gyms, the recently enlarged theaters, the world-class cuisine, and the flat screen TVs in every classroom. High school students likely didn’t visit these schools to scope out the amenities, but an applicant certainly could have changed his or her mind about where he or she wanted to enroll after seeing them.

Tuition has risen faster than inflation during my college career. Certainly, construction and maintenance costs for dorms, dining halls, theaters, gyms, sports arenas, and student centers have been partially responsible. If the purpose of going to college is to receive an education, then why do we pay ever-increasing tuition to support these seemingly needless amenities?

College students from other nations seem perfectly happy without all of these luxuries. When I was abroad in France last semester, my school provided me with two things: an education and a roof over my head. My school was simply one large building on a city block—there wasn’t even a campus to speak of. Students lived somewhere in the city and commuted. There were no varsity sports teams to support, no theater to watch student productions in, and certainly no 2 a.m. mozz sticks. (There were some of the most fantastic espresso machines you could imagine, but espresso is considered an absolute necessity in France.) Without all of the fanfare that accompanies American collegiate life, these students were still perfectly happy, had normal friendships, and became deeply involved in academics and extracurriculars. The price tag on my semester abroad was so much lower than Boston College’s that my father begged me to transfer there permanently.

Is the French education system proof that we as Americans are misallocating resources in society? Are we creating a generation of indebted students for no real reason? It’s hard to argue against the claim that, on the surface, Americans are paying an unspeakably high multiple of what Europeans are paying for the same undergraduate college degree. Is free access to an old gym that lacks air conditioning really worth it?

In terms of return on investment, the answer is no, of course not. My experience abroad, however, has led me to think that this question cannot be analyzed strictly in terms of numbers. In my travels across Europe, I distinctly remember encountering an adult wearing a BC baseball hat in Paris, seeing a Superfan shirt in a bar in Florence, and of course, coming across BC swag all over Dublin. Seeing all of this reminded me that alumni never forget their BC experience. In contrast, although the aggregate number of students at my abroad university’s French and international locations was roughly comparable to the BC student population, I never saw any branded clothing from my abroad university anywhere outside of the school itself.

This could be a shallow estimator of the importance of the amenities that American universities provide, but I was also told by a number of non-American students that they would love to attend a college football game, or study on a picturesque campus green. I still have not gotten over the fact that student organizations at my French university created fake fraternity letterman jackets to wear at school. How they picked their Greek letters is one of the many questions that keeps me up at night.

It is true that we always chase after what we don’t have, and maybe these students would not be enamored with tailgates and fraternities if they existed in their home culture and they had to pay for them, but their fascination with American university life did have some meaning for me. It reminded me that, every time I return to BC, it feels like home, and that this feeling only grows stronger every year. I can guarantee that this feeling would not exist without the closeness of friendships developed by living on campus with other students 24/7; without the excitement fellow students, alumni, and I feel about each new football season; and without being able to complain that Plex workouts would smell less like 40 years of entrenched sweat if someone would just install air conditioning.

I cannot give a precise answer as to whether American tuition prices are justified by the close connection students feel to their universities, though I’m sure my father could give you a resounding “no.” At least, if we are paying this much for a home, it is a damn good one.

Featured Image by Andrew Skaras / Heights Editor

September 8, 2014