No film more deftly portrays college-age ennui than Mike Nichols’ classic 1967 movie, The Graduate.
“What are you doing?” Benjamin Braddock’s father demands of his son, who’s been spending his time since school lying on an air mattress in the backyard pool.
“Well,” Benjamin replies, “I would say that I’m just drifting, here in the pool.”
“Why?” Dad insists.
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“Well,” says Ben, “it’s very comfortable — just to drift here.”
And so it is. Since 1967, all that’s changed about drifting endlessly in a pool is that now you can do it on campus while you’re still a student.
Miniature water parks, including circular “lazy rivers” — with room for several hundred students to float in inner tubes — are standard equipment at a growing number of colleges, according to The New York Times.
The lazy river at Texas Tech is part of an $8.4-million complex that includes a water slide and tanning deck, The Times reports. Keeping up with the competition, Louisiana State University is constructing one in the shape of the school’s logo.
It’s all part of the trend toward competing for enrollment based on student “amenities,” whether lazy rivers or elaborate dining facilities. As of late 2012, 92 schools had embarked on 157 recreational capital projects, at a total cost of $1.7 billion, according to Simon Bravo, a spokesman for NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation (formerly the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association).
Just one question: Is this the best use of scarce resources, given that these facilities are ultimately underwritten by tuition and by federal and state taxpayer funding — and that colleges are supposed to be, you know, educational institutions?
The self-interested, short-term answer for many colleges is “yes.” As a 2013 analysis for the National Bureau of Economic Research showed, only the minority of higher-achieving students value academic quality over campus amenities; Ivy League schools and the like compete on that dimension, not amenities. The vast majority of would-be undergrads, however, are more likely to put a premium on the social side of college, and this is especially true of the wealthier students among them.
In short, when institutions invest in pools and climbing walls, they are catering to the needs of their least motivated, and least needy, clients — good for the colleges’ bottom lines but the opposite of society’s priorities.
Schools point to research that shows students learn better when they get lots of exercise. But Richard Arum, a professor of sociology at New York University, argues that any such positive effect is canceled out by the gradual transformation of college from an academic experience to a social and recreational one.
Arum and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia have been conducting a long-term study of individuals from the classes of 2009 at 24 diverse institutions. Along the way, they visited more than 100 schools and, Arum says, at “every one, you find a new student center, a new gym, high-end dorms, or all three.”
What Arum and Roksa did not find was a lot of learning. Their first results, published in 2011, showed that students improved hardly at all in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing during their first two years of college. This was not surprising, given that 36 percent of students spent just five hours a week on solo study yet received a B-plus average for this modest effort.
Arum says that students conclude from this experience that “academic commitments are a minimal set of obligations they are expected to satisfy and nothing more,” and that they have the luxury of prolonging adolescence.
As Arum and Roksa’s newly published follow-up study documents, this can lead to rude awakenings when graduates hit the job market and realize that they lack skills and adult competencies: Two years after graduation, only 47 percent of the study sample who were in the labor market had full-time jobs paying $30,000 or more.
That reflects the recession as well as trends on campus, as Arum acknowledges. Yet his policy recommendation – colleges and universities should re-emphasize academic rigor — seems appropriate for any point in the business cycle.
Alas, change is unlikely until the public starts insisting on lasting academic impact — not perishable entertainment — in return for their tax and tuition dollars.
“Would you mind telling me: What were those four years of college for?” Benjamin Braddock’s dad asks. “What was the point of all that hard work?”
“You got me,” Ben replies.
Those lines still ring true for too many real-life parents and graduates, except for the part about hard work.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.
© 2014, The Washington Post