These days, college and university administrators may feel that they are closer to the hospitality business than the field of education.
College officials have long touted the well-stocked libraries and high-minded academic goals they have for undergraduates. But now they have an additional duty: marketing the college's ability to provide the comfort and convenience students feel they deserve. And that means on-campus housing that sports all the latest bells and whistles.
As if touting the features of a resort, campus officials boast about restaurant-style food service and residence halls that feature apartment-like configurations, weight rooms, or 53 channels of cable TV.
"There's a much greater consumer orientation among the students of today than there was among students in the 1960s, '70s, or even '80s," says Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University in New York. Students, he says, feel that "they're paying, and they ought to get what they want."
Colleges are doing the equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses, Mr. Levine says. If the guy down the block has a swimming pool, you up the ante with a bigger, indoor swimming facility - anything but risk losing students to a school that has more special facilities.
This kind of competition suits many students just fine. Elizabeth Riley, a freshman at Boston University, never shared a room with her siblings and admits her mother picked up after her. So, even though campus overcrowding landed her in a room in a Howard Johnson's hotel adjacent to campus, she was delighted. "I like the maid service,"she says of her temporary "dorm."
Colleges are pumping funds into housing because more students want the bonds an on-campus experience offers. At the University of Maryland at College Park, for example, where admission standards have been rising, there are more academically strong students who want to be on campus, closer to both faculty and football games, says Pat Mielke, the director of resident life. "They want to be in the middle of things, they want your 'traditional college experience.' "
On-campus students more likely to stay
Other reasons as well lie behind the investment in creating alluring campus atmospheres.
Research shows that college students who live on campus - only about 30 percent of all students - are more likely to stay and graduate with a degree than those who live elsewhere.
Students who live on campus "get more out of college," says Ernest Pascarella, an education professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who has studied the issue.
"What happens is the person who lives on campus, they're just more involved in the institution. They interact more with faculty, they interact more with peers," he says. "The kinds of things that happen in a nonclassroom situation are as important or more important [than academics]."
In addition, officials acknowledge, a happy undergraduate can become a happy - and generous - alumnus.
That means that officials are trying not only to get students to the campus, but to keep them there. The University of California at Los Angeles, for instance, sank big money several years ago into hard-wiring dormitories for fast Internet connections, and Indiana University in Bloomington tries to foster feelings of belonging by assigning freshmen to rooms near other first-year students who share their classes.
"Over the last 10 or 15 years, we've become much more intentional and focused, tying [residence life] in with the academic education to build a holistic kind of environment," says Bill Schuerman, dean of students at the University of Dayton, a Roman Catholic college in Ohio.
At Maryland's College Park campus, the school tries to lure students with everything from a house for those wanting an environment free of alcohol, smoking, and drugs to teaching more classes in the residence halls.
"All that seems to have a very positive effect on the number of people who want to be here and want to stay," says Ms. Mielke.
Todd Olson, associate dean for campus living at the University of Denver, says his institution has had success with "living-learning communities," which include residential units for honors students and those interested in leadership and wellness issues.
"There was a desire on our campus," Mr. Olson says, "to look at all the places where we could get students really engaged in and involved in an intensive, small-group experience to enhance their learning and increase their satisfaction with college."
The one cloud in this flurry of modernization is the crowding many campuses are witnessing this fall.
From California to Ohio to Florida, residence-hall rooms meant for two are crammed with three students. Some enrollees at Boston University, Maryland's College Park campus, the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, in North Dartmouth, and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles have even discovered that their "on-campus" dorm is actually an off-campus motel.
Too many takers
The swelling ranks of new and returning students owe much to a strong economy, experts say, as well as to the "baby-boom echo," the huge wave of baby boomers' offspring now surging through schools and colleges. But colleges may also be victims of their own success in attracting students to campus.
"We are bulging at the seams," says Alan Hanson, UCLA's director of residential life.
Nearly half the on-campus students at UCLA this term are tripled up in double rooms - about 3,000 students altogether, or 1,200 more than faced crowding last year - and the university has some students living in lounges that have become six-person bedrooms.
With an extra 450 students living on the West Los Angeles campus this fall, UCLA students are complaining that they're not getting what they're paying for because of the sardine-tight residence halls, long lines in the dining halls, an overloaded campus computer network, and the fact that choice classes are filling up fast.
Likewise, Saurabh Desai, a Boston University freshman, says he has felt neglected by his university. Mr. Desai wanted a residence hall close to the center of campus, but instead found himself in an overflow dorm 15 minutes away at Emmanuel College, a school for women.
Unlike other BU residence halls, his dorm lacks a cafeteria, and at dinner time, the shuttle bus runs only every 40 minutes. "If we want to eat, we have to schedule our meals around when the shuttle arrives," he says.
But relief for Desai and other students facing overcrowding could be on the way. Schools across the United States are ponying up for new dorms - aided in many cases by the 1990s stock-market boom. The University of California at Los Angeles, for example, expects to open a 1,250-bed residence complex next year. The University of Florida in Gainesville and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge plan to open new dormitories in 2000 and 2001, respectively.
But Desai has found an upside to the situation that may illustrate the enduring appeal of on-campus living. He and his dorm mates have bonded because of their common hardship. "It really is like a big family," he says.