Monday, February 22, 2010

What Do Students Really Need?

I find myself constantly asking this question: what do students really need? By that I mean, to be successful in college, to learn, to achieve their goals, to grow, to be able to ultimately better serve our democracy. I ask this question most often in specific institutional contexts.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to have a tour on a brand new campus, and one that is now a 100% commuter campus, but is going to be opening residence halls. Talk about a culture changer…..?!

None of the residences under construction were ready yet for prospective student residents to view where they might be living. So the college had created a “model” suite to show exactly the dimensions, furnishings, facilities, of a two bedroom “suite.” What a neat idea, I thought.

In each “suite” there was a common area that included a kitchen. The kitchen component included a large refrigerator, (as large as the one in my kitchen), a dishwashing machine, a stove, and microwave oven. I do not remember if there was a disposal and if there was a trash compactor! And directly across from the kitchen area was a living room seating area in which a 15” flat screen cable TV will be provided in each suite.

Well, you could have blown me over with a feather. What extraordinary living circumstances—but only from my perspective perhaps. And I haven’t even mentioned the elaborate security and other protective devices. This college has really gone all out to provide most all the amenities a contemporary student would want—or at least I would hope so. They are certainly being “supportive” in that respect.

But, there was part of me that inevitably remembered my own “dorms” in the 1960’s. No private rooms. No carpeting. No TV’s in the room. Microwave ovens and flat screens and cable TV did not exist. And there were other parts of me that I found were asking:

1. Will all these creature comforts really produce better students, better writers, thinkers, problem solvers?
2. What is it that students really need in terms of support during college?
3. Will these facilities yield more satisfied students?
4. Will these facilities further encourage students to think of themselves as “consumers” to be catered to?
5. What kinds of support would be analogous for their needs in the curriculum, for their intellectual development?
6. Can any college possibly manage a comparable level of support for the curricular objectives of higher education as we now provide in such living amenities?
7. Will this level of creature comfort provide us with better graduates, employees, leaders, parents, citizens?
8. What would happen if we didn’t do this, provide such amenities? Are there other strategies we could resort to to remain competitive?

So many questions. So few answers, at least initially. The jury is out. But one thing I do know: these student residences are gorgeous and some very lucky students will get to call them home. I hope they appreciate what the preceding generation is now handing them.

-John Gardner