Friday, September 18, 2009

"Rich People With Too Much Rich"

The traditional university dorm is a hardscrabble, almost falling-down place, a sardine can that more often than not a hapless student has to share with a crazy roommate. I'm not sure if this has any basis in reality; at my alma mater, the vast majority of residential rooms were one-person affairs, though this in itself may be a subversion of standard practices.

Sometimes, though, a university will take this stereotype, burn it to a crisp, and then bury the ashes. Yesterday the Chicago Tribune printed a story entitled "Luxury dorms: Purdue University, other schools build swanky housing to lure undergrads," and it's what's lurking in the background of it that really puts me ill at ease.

Purdue University is located in West Lafayette, Indiana, not too far from Indianapolis and Chicago, with an enrollment of nearly forty thousand students. It operates twelve distinct residences; the subject of the story, First Street Towers, is one of the newest, the smallest, and is by far the most expensive at Purdue. The Tribune article boasts of how the three hundred and fifty-six single rooms come with private bathrooms and maid service and of lounges with custom entertainment centers built by the Amish. Not exactly "budget."

So how expensive is it? That depends on what package a student gets. Purdue folds meal plans into its residential rates, with students able to choose from ten, twelve, fifteen, and twenty meals per week covered in their rates. The 12-meal plan, listed as the most common, would cost a First Street Towers resident $14,204 USD - that's $15,197.96 CAD, according to today's exchange rate, and probably before taxes. That approaches the cost of something like three years of my own university education.

I was going on to a comrade about this yesterday and he raised the point that it might not be that much more expensive than rent. If this school was in metropolitan Chicago or Manhattan, I could see that, but West Lafayette is not exactly built-up. lists multiple rental properties in West Lafayette for less than $600 USD. This seems more to be an issue of people getting entranced by the concept of luxury and going for it without giving much thought to the long-term consequences.

What gets my hackles up here is how this is all being framed, as if luxury is its own reward. "Privacy isn't negotiable" for the new generation of students, the article says, the millennial generation born between 1982 and 2003. First off, I take exception to that division point. As someone born in 1982, I have far more in common with someone from the 1970s than the 1990s.

A new resident of First Street Towers is quoted in the article as saying, "You are going to be in debt anyway, might as well enjoy." This is what greatly disturbs me. Comments like this demonstrate that we've really, as a whole, learned nothing. I would think that if you have do be in debt, you'd want to minimize it as much as possible so that it's as easy to pay off as possible - but no, I'm sure that these students will be comforted by memories of their posh, posh university surroundings when they're later making sandwiches or pumping gas because those are the only jobs they can find with this economy.

I may be overreacting to this. Luxury's always had a place in society, but conspicuous luxury such as this, set against our present economic situation, tends to set me off. I would actually be more comfortable with it if I knew this residence was occupied by scions of millionaire families - as it is, I think it's more likely that this place is attracting middle-class students whose families are having a hard enough time to make ends meet as it is.

I read a story in a recent issue of Asimov's, I think, about people genetically engineered to have a greater awareness of and concern for the future. I see an absence of that here. Places like First Street Towers are, essentially, shrines to the present, to the immediate. It's not even a case of "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die" - "tomorrow" doesn't seem to enter into it at all.

Credit to my sister for coming up with the title of this post.

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