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What Is the Point of these Luxury College Dorms?

If you’ve seen a college campus recently, you probably noticed that dorms have changed since you went to college. I don’t want to sound like alums walking around campus grumbling about how good we had it. Or how we walked 10 miles uphill in the snow to get to class. But one thing really irks me—the luxury college dorms and amenities are ridiculous. Lazy rivers, granite counter tops, omelet stations, en suite bathrooms, free on demand cable.

As a parent and tuition payer, I can’t help but wonder: have we all gone insane? Why are we funding this extravagance?

The absurdity of it all really hit me this spring when we toured the honors housing at a large public university. The prospective students and parents were shown into the college dorm’s demo suite. We parents all gazed, mouths agape, at the two bedroom suite: each room had a double bed, its own closet, and opened into a spacious furnished living space, with a granite counter kitchenette on one side, and on the other a granite counter double sink bathroom, with its own private shower and toilet (so your student is spared that nasty inconvenient walk down the hall to the communal bathroom).

Each bedroom had its own thermostat, guaranteeing your student will be neither too hot nor too cold. It was hushed, decorated like an Ikea catalog, and smelled like lemons and clean laundry.

“This college dorm is nicer than our house,” whispered one mother.

Yep—this college room was roomier and more comfortable than our son’s small drafty room and tiny closet at home. “We’ve kind of created a problem,” the college administrator admitted. “The rooms are so nice, kids don’t ever leave and it’s been hard to build any sense of community. We have to offer food to get them to come out of their rooms and meet each other.”

Every day, my daughter’s cafeteria offers her whatever kind of cuisine might strike her fancy: the waffle bar, carving station, sushi bar, and vegan menus. The dining hall promised students “a global culinary experience with tastes of cultures from around the world.” Seriously? That sounds like a five star resort. The three cafeterias at my son’s college are open 24/7 so he can drop in anytime for a made-to-order burger or just a cup of coffee—and he can get an environmentally-sustainable carryout box to go, too, in case he’s hungry later.

What, pray tell, is so wrong with a college kid occasionally being hungry?

The $85 million dollar rec centers, the sushi bar, free coffee. When did all of this become the standard of living for 18-year-olds? Some of this trend is driven by the competition for full-pay students, the dollars available due to unlimited federal student loans, and the arms race for top notch facilities to attract those tuition dollars. But in all honesty, colleges build these facilities because students want the nicest college dorms. And they are willing to pay for them, even if it means crazy college dorm costs and crushing loan debt they won’t pay off for decades.

Consumer behavior isn’t always rational. While numerous studies have proven that lazy rivers and decadent college dorms aren’t the primary drivers of college costs—the administrative bloat of too many admissions and human resource personnel comprise almost 60 percent of the cost of tuition—they can still be “PR black eyes” and “bad optics” that embarrass universities, scandalize parents, and invite ridicule. If you are actually concerned about college affordability, however, that $85 million rec center at least makes you question the priorities in a college’s decision-making.

Call me a killjoy, but I believe that air conditioning, cable, and organic, free range chicken burrito bowls are luxuries that these kids have done nothing to deserve. It took 15 years and three houses before my husband and I had granite counter tops and air conditioning. We are still nauseous about how much we pay for high speed internet. After years of hard work, we were able to pay for these things.

The majority of these college students will have no money and thousands of dollars of debt when they graduate. Yet will they still feel entitled to a first apartment with granite countertops, a gym, and free cable?

It’s a question of character development: if you don’t earn these luxuries, you will not truly appreciate them.

So, colleges, let me say this. Please make my kids uncomfortable. Let the dorm rooms be miserably hot in August and drafty in January. It’s fine if the dorm smells vaguely like sewer gas. It doesn’t need to be modeled on sleek new modern loft-style living—trust me, they won’t take care of it anyway. I want their meals to be rubbery, gray mystery meat often enough that they are occasionally left hungry and/or dissatisfied. I want my son to trudge down the hall with his shower bucket and wait in line for the shower, which is barely lukewarm. It’s character-building.

Are you sending your teen to college?

Kids shouldn’t enjoy a better standard of living than they do at home, or than they can possibly expect to have after graduation. College students should learn now that life does not come with granite counter tops and laundry service. They are going to college to aspire to these things, not to be entitled to them.

A little austerity and delayed gratification now would be much more educational in the long run than a lazy river, anyway.

Jane Parent, former editor at Your Teen, is the parent of three.

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