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I dearly wanted my niece to have a “college experience” which meant to me not having to do a part-time job, which I had done in high school and grad school. She didn’t but she did graduate from college and I am glad for that. Zoom encounters and teaching could be more communitarian, but it tends not to be, rather it does allow for behaviors not as representative of some ideal of a “college experience”.
That shocking stability is exposing a long-standing disconnect: Without the college experience, a college education alone seems insufficient. Quietly, higher education was always an excuse to justify the college lifestyle. But the pandemic has revealed that university life is far more embedded in the American idea than anyone thought. America is deeply committed to the dream of attending college. It’s far less interested in the education for which students supposedly attend.
Students do go to school for the schooling, of course. Colleges hold classes, host majors, and award degrees. Getting a college degree is now one of the only paths to a middle-class life, training graduates for a particular career and, on average, doubling their median income. But that’s just a small part of colleges’ purpose. In the United States, higher education offers a fantasy for how kids should grow up: by competing for admission to a rarefied place, which erects a safe cocoon that facilitates debauchery and self-discovery, out of which an adult emerges. The process—not just the result, a degree—offers access to opportunity, camaraderie, and even matrimony. Partying, drinking, sex, clubs, fraternities: These rites of passage became an American birthright.
Not everyone gets or even wants a college experience. At least 35 percent of American students attend two-year institutions such as junior and community colleges that don’t promise a coming-of-age experience. Likewise, some state schools cater to commuter students, working students, and students outside traditional college age, for whom a college experience is either a luxury or a memory. That’s what made it easy for the California State University system—all 23 campuses, serving almost half a million students total—to move fall classes online way back in May.[…]
By the time the pandemic arrived, residential colleges had been selling the college experience, along with a side of education, for decades. They had been promulgating it as a cultural aspiration for much longer. An education is useful and even beneficial. But it’s not what American colleges are built for, and it never has been.
When Western universities got their start in medieval Europe, they were integrated into major cities, such as Paris, Berlin, and Milan. England was an exception. Its oldest colleges, Oxford and Cambridge, were nestled into the bucolic countryside. When Harvard became the first college in the future United States, it adopted the English notion of a campus as a place apart—and became the prototype for every U.S. undergraduate college that succeeded it. The school was designed around a quadrangle (an Oxford-Cambridge invention) that literally contains collegiate life, separated from the outside but connected within.[…]
The pandemic has made college frail, but it has strengthened Americans’ awareness of their attachment to the college experience. It has shown the whole nation, all at once, how invested they are in going away to school or dreaming about doing so. Facing that revelation might be the most important outcome of the pandemic for higher ed: An education may take place at college, but that’s not what colleges principally provide. Higher education survived a civil war, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the 1918 Spanish flu, the worst pandemic the U.S. has ever faced. American colleges will outlast this crisis, too, whether or not they are safe, whether or not they are affordable, and whether or not you or your children actually attend them. The pandemic offered an invitation to construe college as an education alone, because it was too dangerous to embrace it as an experience. Nobody was interested. They probably never will be.
For many, their college experience occurred far enough away from home to not have weekend visits and that experience sometimes is the first lengthy separation in an adult life. Going to rural areas after growing up in a city for college has the same shocks as those with the opposite kind of family history. Even the migration of military life has similar adjustment issues.
The disproportion of urban population and how it constitutes a larger concentration of the US population does say something about how the nation needs to think of itself less as a conflict among regions.
In other adult experiences:
A trove for new memes:
Music for the polls(sic):