College May be a Scam, College Town Urbanism is Not
The modern campus experience is sociologically fraught, but it just might have the keys to rebuilding social capital
Higher education is hyper competitive, with acceptance rates at top universities much lower than they were in the past, which is also an economically exploitative, debt-based, system. While historically, only elites attended college, the left’s solutions to inequality, of encouraging the masses to attend college, or the notion that everyone must attend college, has just inflated the value of degrees, and exacerbated elite overproduction. The purpose of University should be for job training, as well as a place for open intellectual discourse, and as incubators for innovation and culture. However, University has devolved into credentialism, basically purchasing a diploma as a ticket to the middle class, which is not even guaranteed.
There are interesting proposals for reforming higher education, including online lectures to cut costs and using vast university endowments to pay off student loan debt. However, anti-college conservatives often give terrible life advice, such as don't go to college, don't get educated, and kick your kids out of the house as soon as they turn 18. By rejecting College, conservatives have also removed themselves from the path to the elite, while also failing to build successful parallel institutions. Conservatives’ approach to education is also very utilitarian and purely economically oriented, which explains why conservatives lose the culture war.
Conservatives are heavily invested in narratives that don’t reflect the reality of power dynamics, such as go woke go broke, which is often a cope. Even if wokeness is lowering standards in academia, the reality is that workers without college degrees are at a disadvantage for high paying white collar jobs. While there is a positive trend of some corporations ending requirements for college degrees, this is likely a temporary phenomenon due to the pandemic labor shortage, and may no longer be the case, as the recession accelerates mass layoffs. Overall, College is a scam, but it is a scam that if you don’t play, you lose out on.
Conservatives also neglect the importance of college for networking, which is as much a gateway to the upper middle class as credentialism is. The essence of University admissions is about striving and paying access to the right class, basically access to other young adults from the upper middle class. This model is inherently elitist, which is why the woke equity agenda seems so absurd, though the equity agenda is about diversifying the managerial class, rather than actually ending inequality. Regardless, due to demographic change, there is even more of a premium placed on accessing these elite youth bubbles, in contrast with the rest of society that is ageing or lower class.
Besides networking for business opportunities, college is important for dating. While today it is less common for people to meet their future spouse in college, and obviously young men in college still struggle with dating. However, once one starts working and is out of school, it becomes increasingly difficult to find spaces to form IRL social circles and dating opportunities. Not to mention that HR office culture is not exactly friendly towards asking out co-workers. A guy working in the trades and stuck in a small city with no college, is likely very dependent upon online dating. Dating apps, like Tinder, has a gini index for inequality comparable to that of Venezuela or South Africa, which explains why young men are now far more likely to be single than their female counterparts. Not to mention that many college educated women refuse to date men without college degrees, which is causing a mating crisis. Also declining fertility has increased competition for both older guys looking to date down in age, as well as young guys competing with older guys for women their age, as Zoomers, are a smaller demographic cohort than Millennials.
How Couples Met
The “college experience” is so engrained in American culture because it offers something that is missing in society at large, which utilitarian minded conservatives especially miss. While all institutions gatekeep, and I am certainly not downplaying the politicization of campus culture, universities are still the lesser of evils compared to the corporate world. Despite there being limitations on freedom of expression, different groups can still find their niche interests with social clubs, while corporations generally discourage socializing, that does not serve the corporate culture. University still has remnants of social capital that can’t be found in the rest of society, unless one is part of some close knit community.
While the appeal of college, is as an escape from atomized mass society, universities are ironically responsible for a lot of the problems of societal rootlessness, and dearth of social capital. For instance, the model of youth leaving their hometown, dispersing to the wind, wherever college or job offers take them, and often never to return to put down roots. This is a major reason why extended families have dissolved and closeknit communities are nearly extinct, especially for White people. Not to mention how credentialism and the student debt crisis is responsible for declining fertility and family formation. Also the emphasis on select prestigious universities has contributed to the destruction of regional cultures, and the decline of local elites needed for culture and building up local economies.
The University system, as well as secondary education has destroyed inter-generational communities, exacerbating age segregation and overall social atomization. In the post-war period inter-generational communities were replaced by centralized institutions, as well as mass youth culture. This trend started with the public high school movement in the early 20th Century Progressive era, and then further in the Post-War era with adolescent oriented culture and amenities. Indiscriminately “imprisoning” people together based upon age, rather than by familiar, ethnic, or tribal identity or by ability, ends up creating toxic social hierarchies, that have long lasting impacts into adulthood. A major motive behind mass education is to socialize youth into the values of mass society, government, and institutions, thus isolating them from their inborn community, family or tribe. For instance educational reformer, John Dewey, who believed that the purpose of education was to create a civil society.
Another appeal of the college experience, is that it is often the only time in peoples’ lives that they get to live in a walkable community, which is a rare commodity for Americans. College tuition has become more expensive, in part, due to charging students for more thrills, such as resort-like amenities. However, the access to scarce walkable communities also makes college a positional good. Much like with theme parks like Disneyland, where people also pay a premium to visit, these types of walkable communities are illegal to build in most places under existing zoning regulation. For instance, UCLA is a rare part of the LA metro, that besides Disneyland is truly walkable, and where one can get by without a car. Many college towns offer the best of both worlds, in that they are small towns, that also have the vibrancy and amenities of urbanism, but without the negative aspects of big cities. This model of smaller yet compact and dense towns, which are more common in Europe, are preferable to urban areas, suburban sprawl, as well as more desolate rural areas, though are fairly rare for America, outside of college or certain resort towns. However, there are attempts to recreate this model with New Urbanism.
source: Darrel Owens Twitter
Universities also function as a sort of arcology or self-contained city, where classes, dorms, and recreational amenities are all in a compact inter-connected area, that is car-free and within walking distance. The overall structure of communities impacts just about everything, including economic opportunities, mental wellbeing, social capitol, and overall quality of life, and cities and suburbs could become much more livable if they incorporated attributes of college campuses. With Euclidean zoning, land-use is compartmentalized into residential, commercial corridors, office space, and then institutions such as schools, but what is missing is what urbanists call the third place. Basically social spaces that are separate from work, school, or home, including recreational amenities, spaces that could serve as focal points for communities, besides work or school. However, even New Urbanism falls short and arcologies are very expensive and impractical to build from scratch. Regardless if colleges are here to stay, or there is some movement to phase out higher education, college campuses have the potential to be more integrated with communities. Campuses could function as 2nd downtowns for cities, basically mixed-use, pedestrian oriented spaces, that take advantage of the existing compact car free spaces that are hard to build up from scratch.
What is great about many college campuses is that free time can be spent in pleasant spaces to socialize, walk to and from class, use recreational amenities such as gyms or pools, and to be able to go back to one’s dorm room. In contrast, high schools are very oppressive due to their physical models, with public schools in wealthy suburbs and ghettos alike being compared to prisons. This could explain why suicide rates for high school students decline over summer vacation. With high school, there are problems with the built environment and how it relates to the management of time. For instance, how much time students spend waiting around, neither being productive nor having access to leisure or recreation, as there is a lack of safe spaces that are more free and open for students. However, unlike college, high schools also have disciplinary issues, and part of the reason that high schools are prison-like, is due to accommodating the segment of poorly behaved students, while the rest of the students pay the price. Ideally, there should be a tiered system, to grant well behaved students more freedom, like college, but this would go against the equity agenda.
While many high schools grant off campus privileges for well-behaved upper classman, the areas surrounding high schools are often car oriented and not ideal to hang out. Not to mention that schools are often not within walking distance from students’ homes. A major purpose of schooling is as a form of babysitting, which is especially due to how poorly cities are designed, with a lack of safe public spaces. Bad urban planning and sprawl are also a hindrance to education reforms such as apprenticeships. Ideally high schools should be retrofitted to serve as community centers, open to people of all ages, with classes, community space, and recreation. The surrounding areas would ideally be very walkable, with apprenticeships and homeschooling scattered throughout the community, but with the community center as a central focal point.
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The essence of the school choice movement, such as no strings attached vouchers for private schools and homeschooling, as well as guilds and apprenticeships, is an op-out from atomized mass society and centralized institutions. Basically all social and economic transactions are done via institutions, which has made society much less free. If one is not connected to an institution, one has much less social capital and role in society. School choice has the potential to enable enclaves, neo-tribalism, and parallel institutions, but only if combined with freedom of association, and even homeschooling requires existing high social capital. Back to the anti-college movement, building alternatives to University would only be effective if a critical amount of people with talent, status, and funding, including a faction of the elite, demanded an alternative. For instance anti-White discrimination in jobs and education, harming the White upper class, could be a game changer for alternative institutions. University, even if it has contributed to a lot of negative societal problems, offers a template as for how to rebuild society’s social capital.
Fantastic piece Robert. Sent this one to multiple people I know. Thanks
Yes, good point. College is a bundle of many services, of which academic training is only one. Thus college continues to be a draw even though the academic aspect of it is increasingly watered-down/corrupted/becoming irrelevant. No other institution in American life offers this valuable bundle of a good lifestyle with great socializing and networking opportunities. If one does happen to pick up a useful thing or two in the classroom, then it is icing on the cake. Which is probably why the availability of online learning has not made much of a dent to the prestigious college's business model.