I remember the snow falling on the quad and my friend Allen muttering “The only people for me are the mad ones.” He had recently read Kerouac’s On The Road and was convinced that people around him weren’t really living… “like really living, man,” he said. It was the middle of the night and The University of Chicago campus, with its ivy, and benches, Gothic towers, and sidewalks – was like a turn of the century movie set. We were playing the part of the college freshmen, questioning the purpose of our education and the American Dream. We had worked hard, but we were lucky.
It was a visceral experience. I remember the way it smelled, the sound of our feet crunching the snow, and the way the coffee in my hand tasted. There are many memories I have from back then, but this is the one that follows me – the memory that reminds me of questioning, but still believing that anything is possible. We had showed up on campus that fall with some experiences, ideas, and a whole lot of wonder. It was as close to magic as I have ever come. A bit dramatic? So what…it was all dramatic. The conversations, the all-nighters, the parties with so much energy and excitement you could’ve packaged it up and powered the whole city, and time – yes time. There was time to think, time to do what you wanted to do, time to explore, time to meet people, time to dream, and time to really… grow.
The experience is different for everyone, but I am certain there are similarities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the recent high school graduates enrolled in college in October 2010, 90.4 percent were full-time students. Colleges have cultures and when the unique forces and people on a campus come together they create the college experience. It has a lot to do with the physical campus – where on many campuses students come from all over the city, country, or globe to live, eat, sleep, study, and socialize. College campuses are the ultimate communities. At The University of Chicago I had dozens of friends who lived within one mile of me and there were no parents, very few rules, and an institution that fostered intellectual and social inquiry. But, wow did the winters get cold . And the food was mediocre at best. It’s all part of the memory. The institution of going to college, exploring your next step, and taking the time to ease into the real-world is truly an experience.
Will the College of 2020 be like this? Sure, some institutions will be able to preserve their culture and cultivate these types of experiences. But others will have a harder time. Expensive small private colleges are trying to find the best way to be competitive in the market and get students and resources, but without question, some of these institutions will not survive. An even larger concern is online programs – which are making it easier for students to learn remotely, but also taking them away from campus. Of course there are significant advantages to institutions offering more online programs, but we don’t need to get into that here. As more and more students demand online classes, I hope they know what they are missing on campus. There are experiences to be had and memories to made everywhere – but there is something special, perhaps magic, that happens on a college campus.
As higher education professionals we spend so much time thinking about the data, the outcomes, and the trends. It’s important to step back and remember that at the core of each institution is a distinct culture – one that creates memories. That’s the college experience.