I would figure that the point of college is to get an education.
This may seem too obvious to even warrant discussing it, but it is all too easily forgotten. I accept the terms are broad: Education can range from learning for learning’s sake to a step toward a career path, but both ends of the spectrum are more valid than self-discovery or social association. Our confusion about why we’re here disturbs not only the way we collectively approach our time at Princeton, but also the way the University views itself and the way it allocates its resources.
The perception that college is something other than an education is fully entrenched in American pop culture. In addition, we are accepted on a broad range of criteria, which vaguely includes evidence of “passion” and “curiosity.” While enrolled, we are encouraged to enjoy and experiment. As one foreign friend explained, she never applied to colleges in the U.S. because Ivy League universities are “outrageously expensive, four-year-long summer camps.” The academic is de-emphasized for development of the whole person, which explains Sharpless’s call for self-discovery. The time to “figure things out” while still being enrolled in a university is a great luxury, and it is a luxury that attracted me to attend school in America. However, a key part of self-discovery is doing. Self-discovery is an ongoing product of the choices we make. Valorizing it as a meditative and all-consuming goal of our 20s would prevent us from discovery itself.
Treating education as anything but education is also indulgent. Our place at this university directly displaces others who vie for similar educational opportunities. To treat college as a free card and a given stage in one’s life is presumptuous. It is strange that we stigmatize discussing our future and educational ambitions when our contributions and drive underscore our right to be here.
The confused point of college is not just an individual problem. On an institutional level, Princeton lacks a well-defined raison d’etre. While public educational institutions are solely responsible to the public good of educating and researching, Princeton and other Ivy Leagues claim to achieve more. Princeton is whatever we want it to be because the school is responsive to our visions, especially as alumni. Creating a quintessential and memorable Princeton experience is essential to securing alumni giving. This different incentive structure also skews the way Princeton spends money; we spend on creating an experience. Of course, I thoroughly enjoy the wide array of activities, scholarships and free food. It is a point underscored in the Chinese press. A Chinese newspaper article reported this summer that a number of high-earning individuals who were educated in both China and the U.S. opted to donate to their American university but neglected their Chinese alma mater. While the Chinese universities provided education to massively more students and a much higher cost-efficiency, the alumni simply enjoyed themselves more at the American universities. The “experience” approach pays off.
However, there is no overarching rationalization of Princeton’s enormous spending. Maybe that free cupcake from Bent Spoon turned many Princeton students into future loyally-giving alumni, but I’m not so sure. We do manage to pull off the impressive feat of being a world-class research university while having a tiny graduate school and a relatively small base of professors, but couldn’t we exercise a little discretion in our spending?
Princeton’s spending seems particularly misguided with respect to activities. Serving as a treasurer for an ODUS-funded organization, which I have done in the past, is a bit of a joke. There is really very little budgeting and no fundraising involved when a couple of forms give you access to more money than you could ever need. I understand that taking the financial pressure off of activities is, in a way, creating a free sandbox for ingenuity. However, the ease with which activities can be created and sustained feels a bit like Princeton foots the bill for us to pad our resumes. The abundance of managerial-type positions could take some pruning to match how much some of these organizations actually do, especially when University employees cover the bulk of the mechanics like catering and maintenance. We fetishize the corporatism and organizational hierarchies of our organizations without ever questioning whether they are justified. Even if the point of activities is not to be productive, but to provide a learning experience, a dose of reality and frugality would be an important lesson.
We could squeeze some of the excess in our spending, or at the very least establish what excess is by our standards, and direct it more purposefully toward academic goals. More classes, professors, research grants and departments enhance the educational experience — the point of being here. I would rather be flush with summer funding for a research project than overwhelmed by Fruity Yogurt flavors at my residential college study breaks.
William Beacom is a sophomore from Calgary, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.