American history is replete with examples of the rags-to-riches story. A penniless youth grows up amid grinding poverty, wondering where his (or her) next meal is coming from and whether mom and pop can make the next rent payment. He (or she) studies hard, finds a way to fund a higher education (or an entrepreneurial venture), burns the candle at both ends, and ends up a rich and famous success.
While they’re not unheard of, stories of individuals who grew up in the lap of luxury, then went on to achieve a quantum leap beyond their upbringing’s ultra-comfortable existence, don’t seem as common. Maybe it’s because they’re not as fun to relate as rags-to-riches sagas. But it’s probably also because there’s something about growing up in a shabby fourth-floor walkup and frequenting the neighborhood soup kitchen that is ideal for fanning the fiery flames of ambition.
I bring this up because of what I’ve read lately about college housing. The term “student housing” has, over the generations, been synonymous with “bare bones.” Put another way, you didn’t have to study at Michigan State University to experience “Spartan quarters” during college.
Doubling or even tripling up with roommates, you made do with a tiny dorm room or apartment furnished with banged-up desks and chairs seemingly cast off from a Salvation Army resale shop. The cot-like beds were equally unsuited to sleep and other activities for which collegians are known. Working wall sockets and institutional fluorescent lighting were what passed for “high-tech” features.
Many have cited conditions in which they lived as undergrads as the reason they hit the ground running the minute they took hold of their sheepskins. They wanted to put as much distance between their new lives as college-educated earners, and the one before, where they subsisted on grilled cheese sandwiches prepared on a clothes iron.
But thanks to a new trend that has developers of student housing competing with one another to build increasingly luxurious off-campus residences, many of today’s students will look back on their college years as times not of deprivation but of creature comforts it once took decades of earning and saving to afford. These students do not sleep in communal quarters, but in private bedrooms with private baths. They savor gourmet kitchens with stainless steel appliances, flat-screen TVs in every residence, hardwood floors, and the most advanced high-speed Internet services.
The common areas of their buildings boast game rooms, outdoor areas with barbecuing facilities, sand volleyball courts, private art collections, state-of-the-art fitness centers, and at some places, swimming pools with sauna and steam rooms.
I assume it’s only a matter of time until we hear of student housing with staffs of masseuses and private chauffeurs as well as maid and butler’s quarters. I can picture it now. A visitor arrives to make a call on an undergrad at his student residence hall, rings the doorbell, and a butler appears. “Please make yourself comfortable in the sitting room, sir, ” the British-accented butler intones. “Biff will be with you in a moment.”
Good habits established early
Like most of my fellow students years ago, I would have loved to have lived a pampered, luxe life as a college student, and would have considered myself a most deserving recipient of the opulent lifestyle. But from the perspective of 35 years after the fact, I have no doubt it would have been the worst thing for me.
Because I scarcely knew where my next dollar was coming from, both during college and the first years after graduation, it was a given that I’d not only have to live a penny-pinching, abstemious existence, but that only by keeping my nose to the grindstone would I find a way out of it. Gradually, my financial fortunes improved, and as they did my lifestyle did as well. Still, I’m not sure that even today I could justify spending on some of the niceties today’s students in their luxuriant quarters take for granted. Just how often would I use a sand volleyball court, anyway?
The relatively new phenomenon I’m describing is all the more intriguing given the early warnings being issued by personal finance experts about the critical importance of 20-somethings saving early, often, and big time. The gurus have peered into the future and laid out dire prophecies for the generation in and just out of college. It seems that, given the size of the Baby Boom voting bloc, there’s little chance U.S. lawmakers will display the gumption to slash Social Security and Medicare benefits.
The boom-meisters will go right on reaping that largess, which will be funded by the generations behind them through frighteningly higher taxes. The upshot: those up-and-comers just launching a career could face a reality once considered preposterous, that they will live less pampered lives at 50 or 60 than they did as college students.
I believe depriving college age folks of a little good ‘ol-fashioned deprivation, the kind that scared the Greatest Generation and others into becoming lifelong savers, is not a good thing. But I know many collegians and their parents would disagree. For them, I hope the next wave of swank student housing comes complete with free use of a private jet, the better to wing off to the Turks and Caicos for a week after midterms.
I mean, if you can’t spend your college years hanging around the playgrounds of the international jet set, why bother?