War, famine, pestilence, and death – the four horsemen of the apocalypse – usually show up on college campuses as the football season winds down. The memory of Grantland Rice and 1924 Notre Dame football get mixed with revelations about the current powerhouse. No more. War and pestilence are at home in colleges across the nation.
Colleges are at war with each other over amenities. From fast food chains to fitness centers, college students are seeing perks once not available at exclusive country clubs. So, strike famine from the list, but the amenity wars go on. The most recent example of amenities on maximum is the climbing wall. Now, the linkage between physical fitness and mental acuity has been well-known for centuries (at college, we always say “since Aristotle”). But colleges are blowing the doors off. Climbing walls, mobile climbing walls, tuned up fitness centers with elliptical trainers coupled to Calorie counters, heart monitors, personal fitness advisers, and yoga classes. Add to these the lap pools, saunas, and spas found on most college campuses.
This may not seem like intercollegiate warfare, but every college competing for the best bright and ambitious students is in a consumer war. While major colleges and universities use part-time faculty and graduate teaching assistants to get through the basics, they have full-time attention on wireless networks, bundled cable TV and internet service in dorms, and dorms that are no longer dorms. Dorms have become cluster apartments and townhouses. Don’t forget the contracts for access to file sharing networks.
All of these amenities cost money, and while every college has a desperate need to continually update facilities, the cost of amenities is nearly out of control. Students on many campuses tax themselves (often with 10% annual escalations) to afford amenities once out of reach. Everyone loves the amenities offered to students – everyone except librarians and information technology officers and senior college administrators wondering how to balance the costs of attracting students with the need to actually offer instruction, keep books and journals in the library, and maintain campus technology. Increasingly, colleges are sacrificing the soldiers of the education battle – faculty – to the competition over amenities.
College education is becoming more expensive, and most of the growth in college spending has little to do with the cost of the basic educational enterprise. Sacrifices need to be made to do battle with the competition’s hot tubs, free weights, and putting greens. Better to keep students healthy if not wise.
While intercollegiate warfare is savaging student affairs budgets, even more attention is being directed to fighting the pestilence of college drinking. College students have been testing both their independence and their alcoholic fortitude for decades. Have they been downing 20 shots of hard liquor during their first month of college? How long have they been having a few drinks before going to a party where alcohol will be served?
Dealing with the alcohol pandemic has left college officials drawn, demoralized, and dazed. As they ready their crisis communication plans to deal with alcohol poisonings and felony arrests, parents are stocking liquor cabinets for underage drinkers (really). People in charge of student behavior are certain they are failing. But are they?
Time was when parents could say no to more than drugs or college students were more concerned about their reputations (or even not getting arrested) than their count of shot glasses. Time was when fake identification was a prank – today it’s a security threat. Time was when students got expelled for violating rules and breaking laws. And, yes, time was when the drinking age was lower, like it is in every other developed country except the US.
The pestilence of alcohol is real but scarcely restricted to colleges. In fact, the pestilence of alcohol and its accompanying head injuries, DWI convictions, domestic violence, vomiting, and hangovers is possibly more common off campus than on campus, even though the most stupendous examples of poor judgment and irresponsible bravado seem close to campuses.
College students of all ages (legal and not) drink alcohol (some are remarkably abstinent). But those who do drink occasionally create remarkably dumb examples. First-year students drinking (more than three or four drinks) know little about the capacity of alcohol to debilitate reasoning. Students drinking 10 shots of hard liquor don’t want to get drunk – they want to be hospitalized. They same goes for high school kids and for young adults. No one should be drinking more than one drink an hour. The penalties are complex and one step less than death.
Parents can help this situation. First, they can ask questions but, better yet, they can set a standard by talking about limits. Second, parents can help younger students understand how much is too much. Third, parents can, through regular contact, remind students who the grown-ups are. Time for parents to just say “don’t” and, preferably to send this message weekly until it sinks in. Parents can help students just say no to illegal and excessive alcohol consumption, but they will need to exercise their help often.Dick Pratt is Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York