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How Universities Manipulate the "College Experience"

The Sharpe Refectory at Brown University. Image from Wikimedia commons.


At the beginning of the Fall 2021 semester, Brown University Dining Services was using plastic cutlery and paper plates in dining halls. This was in order to "lighten the load" because a lack of "qualified employees" led to understaffing, according to BUDS representatives. During the "labor shortage" afflicting employers these days, staff were already overworked and underpaid. They did not have the time to be washing dishes. After an article in the Brown Daily Herald exposed the conditions for workers in dining halls, students protested. One of the concessions offered to students was the return of the old cutlery and crockery. Fortunately this was accompanied by new hires in dining halls, but this still doesn't address the root of the issue — Negotiations with the BUDS staff union are ongoing (Here's more information on how you can support them).

I wonder if any first-years were surprised to see the paper plates replaced. We, as college students, are not supposed to have nice things. It's perfectly reasonable for new students to assume that paper plates and plastic cutlery are the norm. After all, I don't question the lack of urinal cakes in the men's washroom. Or how there always seems to be more students than dorm rooms. If you live on campus, you have to be on meal plan. To live off-campus, you need to pay an "off-campus fee," in addition to rent.

There is more at stake here than just a few inconveniences for what is by-and-large an incredibly privileged group of people (nineteen percent of Brown University students come from families in the one percent). Much more pressing than subpar conditions students live in are the exploitative conditions Brown's employees work in. These both serve to grow Brown's endowment. And we rarely think twice about it because our understanding of what college life should be like is dominated by a narrative of bohemian mediocrity — codified in the "college experience."

Instant noodles are supposed to be the representative food of our lifestyle. Many people from backgrounds of immense class privilege are play-acting as "starving artists." Others' mental health suffers from trying to balance the many emotional, intellectual, and financial expectations the University has of its students.

The "college experience" serves two functions: lowering our expectations for quality of life on campus, and disguising the fact that institutions like Brown University reproduce class privilege. We as students don't expect much in terms of on-campus housing or dining. We also get to pretend that college is a subversive or countercultural space, when more often than not it is preparing people from wealthy families for wealth-producing jobs.

There are absolutely lots of good things about the "college experience." The four years they spend in college is one of the only times most Americans will live in a walkable community. Living next to other young, intellectually engaged people is not something to take for granted. However, we also shouldn't take for granted that the lifestyle currently peddled by colleges (not-for-profit or otherwise) is the only possible version of the "college experience" or serves a purpose other than growing endowments.

In Finland, students are paid to attend university. The expectation is not that students are either employed and overworked or receiving money from their parents. The vast majority of students live off-campus. They are still able to make friends and develop a sense of community with other young people, replacing basement frat parties with traditions like the "sitsit" party. Students are adults like the rest, taking time to develop skills before entering the workforce.

Alternatives to the "college experience" exist, even here in the United States. On-campus life is not a universal experience, nor a rite of passage, nor even necessarily "the best four years of your life." The ubiquity of a certain impression of students and student life lets institutions get away with providing a subpar quality of life at a markup. Even more pernicious is the way this impression of student life disguises universities' current role in exacerbating wealth inequality in the United States — hiding it behind stacks of instant noodles or broken shower curtains.

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