It's part of the romance of the college: The learner leaves home to join a community of fellow learners, to begin a new stage of life. The imaginary is integral to middle-class life, shaping lifecycles of parents as much as it does for the learner. It is the staple of the popular culture, all those college romance stories, movies and TV series. These expectations also shape how colleges operate, as they battle to restrict tenure but upgrade student accommodation at the same time. In fact, the most profitable part of the whole real estate market is student accommodation, offering better yields than any other segment.
But it's also the part which makes the least sense when Higher Education is so expensive. Surely, the romantic notions of college life as a calm commitment to learning are just romantic notions. Envisioning this as a prolonged coming of age party is closer to the truth, at least in most cases. Costs of living outside the home are at least as significant as the tuition costs, making it unaffordable to those without scholarships or parental cash. The underlying cultural expectations - both academic and social - discriminate against day scholars and part-time students. And, indeed, being away from home demands greater resilience, which a lot of people, particularly from a disadvantaged background, lack.
That indeed is the point of staying away from home - resilience - the advocates of traditional model would say. College is, the argument goes, a preparation for life, being able to live with others, etc., alongside a great multicultural exposure. In fact, staying away from home is as much part of the college as learning is.
However, that such a vigorous defence may be needed, point to the underlying weakness of the argument. Much of the college life is anything but a preparation of character: Indeed, some people are steeled by all those alcohol, drugs and sex, but many others were lost. If anything, this is a very wasteful, inexact and discriminatory way of building character. Walk into any privatised, full facility college residence and it would be abundantly clear that those air-conditioned rooms and heated pools are not designed to build character but to pamper a disconnected elite. Besides, if building character needed travels outside one's comfort zone, it can be equally achieved through an inexpensive, stay-at-home local education, preceded or followed by a national service working with disadvantaged communities. The mud, the disease, the poverty and the cruelty out in the world surely teaches more about human life than college football games and drug-fuelled parties.
Some of this may sound like common-sense, but Education is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and like other industries, it has vested interests of its own. This argument - that the future of college may be local - is usually obscured by the invocation of the monastic student life, the dream of a mythical community of learners united in pursuit of disinterested knowledge. That the life in college is actually an unending race after the credits, the faculty hall is as egoistic and political as things possibly could be and the so-called student life, apart from being a thick market for mates (as the Economist Alvin Roth would see it), has very little social relevance or value, are realities well-hidden.
However, this comes at an enormous cost, of human lives and aspirations. The myth and mythology of college is an apparatus of dominion, as the developing countries look up, starry-eyed, to the fame of Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard, and chase those models pointlessly. These countries, with a large population and meagre resources, are indeed better served looking at educational models that correspond more to reality - their reality - and take advantage of technological possibilities and practical structures that can train their people effectively. For them, the future of Higher Ed must be local.
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