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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Editorial: Rethinking the “college experience” in the shadow of COVID

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Party Culture Randi Homola/THE REVIEW
“How “normal” is binge drinking? Or partying taking precedence over academics? Or the fact that this university’s reputation, and part of its appeal, is its notorious status as a party school?”

When thinking about the American college experience, parties, fraternities, booze and nonexistent parental oversight might come to mind — with classes and academics as a mere afterthought.

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered what college looks like, for students that do not want to risk suspension at least. It has thwarted many students’ expectations of four uninterrupted years of experimentation — and not the kind that takes place in ISE Lab. Deprived of blackout-drunk weekends and pre-games, their college experience currently is merely educational.

The inevitable day will come when the only thing illegal about parties will be underage drinking and students will resume their normal weekend routines. However, The Review questions how “normal” these old habits once were.

How “normal” is binge drinking? Or partying taking precedence over academics? Or the fact that this university’s reputation, and part of its appeal, is its notorious status as a party school?

This semester like no other, while painful in many ways for numerous students, provides us with an opportunity to redefine what college is and what it means to students.

Looking at the college experience in other countries serves as a useful starting point to understanding what college is and could be.

The Review’s editorial board reflected on several differences between the typical American college experience and that of several European countries.

While European students are too prominent drinkers, the particularly concerning aspect of the party culture at American colleges is the fact that many students hop into the scene head first without any prior exposure to alcohol or drugs.

In several European countries, the drinking age and smoking age is lower than 18. Students in these countries may experiment with alcohol earlier, in controlled environments like pubs and restaurants and even under their parents’ supervision.

Here, many students wait their whole lives until they turn 18 and are free from their parents’ watchful eyes. Without much experience drinking in high school, they enter college and drink more than their stomachs can handle.

Closely associated with the culture of binge drinking is the distinctly American tradition of Greek life. While hazing may exist in some capacity in European social circles and sports teams, here, students can ensure they will be hazed by signing up for specific fraternities or sororities notorious for their induction traditions.

Another difference between the two systems is the handsome price of American college. America spends twice the amount per college student as the average developed country. One-third of the developed countries in the world offer college free of charge, with another third offering it for less than $2,400 per year.

Why do American colleges cost so much more? Partly, the high cost is associated with the aforementioned social nature and campus-centered aspect of our universities. The U.S. ranks number one in spending on ancillary services which includes expenses such as housing and dining.

However, the majority of the country’s spending on education goes towards routine educational operations like paying staff and faculty. The U.S., on average, has a lower student-to-teacher ratio and also higher amounts of non-teaching staff like counselors, fundraisers, athletic staff, etc.

These greater costs of American education often fall to students. In the past three decades, many state legislators have increasingly cut funding for public institutions due to small government ideology and the necessity of balancing the budget.

As much as students should, justifiably, bear the blame for rising COVID-19 case numbers across the state and the country, it should not be surprising that college students continue to party and gather unmasked and indoors in large numbers when this is the college experience sold to them by universities. For years, these universities have done little to change their reputations as party schools. The Review also notes that students may expect to have some greater college experience because they are paying so much.

This is not to say that the European model of higher education serves as the ideal. The U.K., for instance, has no perfect system that breeds morally-perfect, responsible students that engage in pandemic-perfect behavior. The U.K. recently topped 50,000 cases related to higher and further education. A quarter of a million cases have been reported from U.S. colleges and universities — greater than the U.K’s total amount but in proportion to the higher number of U.S. college students.

Nonetheless, this semester serves as an important lesson for students and the university alike. It is a reminder to students that college is about, unpleasant as it might sound, education. It is a reminder to the university that the issue with COVID-19 on campus did not arise from nowhere, but from a history of justifying the cost of higher education with the mystical idea of the “college experience.”

If or when the full university community returns to campus, the “experience” should again exist in some capacity, with a vibrant social scene, fully-active extracurricular organizations, in-person classes, weekend programming and campus in its full glory. However, this semester presents an opportunity for students and the university to evaluate how to make this “experience” healthier and more productive for the whole community.

The Review’s weekly editorials are written to reflect the majority opinion of The Review’s editorial staff. This editorial was written by Tara Lennon, senior reporter. She may be reached at tlennon@udel.edu.

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