Monday, June 17, 2013

Student scrappiness as class signifier

A little while back, the NYT ran an exposé about today's spoiled college students. How spoiled? So spoiled that in anticipation of beginning their freshman year, they bought shower caddies at Target. Sorry, their parents bought them stuff at Target. So fancy! Also: so schmancy.

I had trouble reacting with appropriate horror to these trips to big-box stores, given the scale of the cost of college and the drop in a bucket this represents. Also given how unremarkable if not modest this kind of spending would be if done by adults for themselves or their under-18 children. People buy towels and stuff. Curtains are now sometimes a part of "stuff"? Yeah, fine, not when I was that age, but so it goes.

But a shrug was clearly not the response one was meant to have. Which, to some extent, fair enough. I mean, outrage - or at least annoyance - seems a fair response if your parents weren't able or willing to put a cent towards shower caddies, upon realizing that your roommate's parents had gone all out. Still, it seemed a bit disingenuous for a NYT lifestyle article. There are no doubt kids being shipped off with $300 shower gel. Was this the best target for generalized rage?

It's for whatever reason easier to rage at more middle-class decadence. Maybe because that's meant to signal a generational shift - this might be kids-these-days, in a way that the schmanciest 0.01% are not. Or maybe it's because there's a certain amount of respect granted to those who spend gobs, but not at a place as shabby as Target, because that's supposed to be chic. It's that second possibility that concerns me.


We now meet the similarly fancy and schmancy students of the University of Missouri, Columbia, who live in "luxury" apartments. What is luxury, though, in this context? Luxury is, these are apartments, not dorms. They actually cost less than the dorms, but are nicer. Key paragraph commenters seem not all that keen on reading:

The monthly rates for the modern units in Columbia generally start at $700 per student for a spot in an apartment, about twice the cost of older housing in the area. Yet they are on par with the price of on-campus housing, which equates to about $1,000 a month per bed, meals included.
So this does sound kind of steep either way. (Dorm food: world's biggest rip-off, unless Alice Waters is somehow involved.) Fascinating, really, that people are paying more to live in Missouri off-campus housing, however luxurious, than one could not that long ago to live in Greater Park Slope.

These apartments are "luxury," though, because they have flat-screen TVs, instead of professors giving lectures. Which is... apparently something we're to believe is a normal thing that happens in a dorm? I went to a somewhat intellectual college (understatement) and lived in its dorms. No one was giving any lectures, unless you count the occasional midnight mansplaining among the undergrads.

"Luxury," though, seems to be mostly code for things that weren't ubiquitous back in the day, but have become so. Or things that didn't exist, period. College students today are mighty luxurious with their smartphones, but note the lack of record players, records/tapes/CDs, video cameras, regular cameras, address books... Similarly, various accoutrements of an earlier age that haven't been replaced with smartphones are also obsolete. How much formalwear are students bringing to college, for example, and no, we don't just get to compare this with whichever peak of hippieishness from the 1970s.

The article inspired what might well be the most mean-spirited comment in newspaper comment history. One college student is interviewed and explains that she's covering some of the cost of living in one of these evil luxury buildings herself, and is not - as the journalist clearly wants to portray her as - a brat. Which gets this response:
Ironic that the bearer of such an infamously aspirational, tacky and upwardly-mobile-stock-broker-fave name as "Courtney" would dispute the notion that student residents of these upscale off-campus resize denies are entitled and spoiled jerks. 
And when she says "I wouldn't say I'm spoiled by any means," methinks the lady doth protest too much.

Further complicating things from an amateur-sociology perspective: there are a) the dorms, which sound like the biggest rip-off, but which have some kind of implied academic atmosphere, and b) the new "luxury" housing, with their "stainless steel appliances, granite countertops and balconies," but there is also c) the Niedermeyer Building, which is apparently old, quaint, and in far better taste than dorms with their own tanning salons. The Niedermeyer Building - furnished, one imagines, by Karl Farbman himself - is clearly for a better class of person. A recent grad who lives there refers to Option B as "mass-produced, soulless luxury." So is it that some students are too poor for in-house tanning, or that some are sufficiently lowbrow as to seek this out? (Both?)

And another commenter has this to say:
My own kids go to top colleges and stay in dorms that are austere and basic. [....] I'd be interested in finding out if there is a direct inverse relationship between the status of the college academically and the luxury housing and other perks they feel compelled to offer. If you are secure in your status, you don't need bells and whistles.
Never mind that it's not the college offering all this. But this commenter may have a point. Student scrappiness is its own class signifier - sometimes the result of a badly-funded school with working-class students, but sometimes the very height of posh. (If you want to make this international, check out the dorms at Sartre's alma mater in Paris.) Maybe those raging against the One Percent would want to look somewhere other than at state-school kids in Missouri, granite-countertop-having or otherwise.


Sigivald said...

Ironic that the bearer of such an infamously aspirational, tacky and upwardly-mobile-stock-broker-fave name as "Courtney" would dispute the notion that student residents of these upscale off-campus resize denies are entitled and spoiled jerks.

Yeah, that's brilliant in ten different ways.

Choosing the cheaper housing? Spoiled, obviously. Non-spoiled people don't care about money.

This is, again, why one should simply ignore the Times, especially the lifestyle section.

Go cold turkey.

Phoebe said...


But I find it interesting! Like, as text. I'm not tormented by it.

caryatis said...

Bet you'd feel differently if your name were Courtney.

fourtinefork said...

It would be interesting if the Times had included more information about other housing prices. Dorm/meal plans have always been insanely overpriced (and generally crappy) everywhere. Back in the old times (well, the 90s), mandatory room & board when I was in college was $6,000/year. Off-campus housing was certainly cheaper.

What are the other options in Columbia? Are there waiting lists for on-campus housing? What does a non-"luxury" rental go for, and is there enough of that to go around anyway? What does it cost to live in a sorority/fraternity? I assume there are various crummy apartment complexes, lacking in tanning beds and fitness centers, where students could be living. Are these students taking out student loans to live in these luxury developments?

In other words, it's an underreported Styles piece: there are a lot of interesting questions about luxury versus asceticism, life of the mind, housing bubbles, etc etc., but this article mainly served as a way to mock the poor Courtneys, their tans, and their supposed lack of taste.

Plus, it was of interest to me as I taught at a large, midwestern state university (not Missouri!), and the only thing I liked about the location was the affordable housing. I paid a bit more than $500/month for a 2 bedroom apartment, within walking distance of campus. It included internet, cable TV, a parking space (which I didn't use, since I didn't have a car), and access to some offsite fitness center, which I also never used. Laundry was in the basement. Appliances were 80s-era and my countertops were cheap formica. I could have lived someplace much swankier, but as a young VAP coming from NYC/Boston, crappy midwestern housing was so much nicer than the horrible places I'd had on the east coast that it didn't seem necessary to live in a "luxury" development. (Honestly, most mobile homes-- and not even a double-wide!--are nicer and bigger than my previous Brooklyn and UES apartments.) I had two bedrooms, central air, and a dishwasher, what more did I need?

My frame of reference, though, is quite different from a 20-year old student from Missouri who is used to a nice suburban ranch (or McMansion.)

Phoebe said...


Not sure who that was meant for, but I'm with Courtney on this one.


Yes, 100% yes, re: anything seeming luxe after various urban (esp. urban student) environments. Where I live now, in my husband's postdoc housing, seems palatial to me, which I've been told makes me strange. But... we have a study! A dishwasher! Air conditioning!

There was a bit in the story (or maybe just the comments?) about cheaper neighborhood apartments. $700 a person would almost have to be steep, given that this is a semi-plausible NYC per-person rent. But you're right that we don't seem to know how available those apartments are. Nor whether they're bare-bones or all-out dangerous.* Also, it's my recollection of dorm-life that those on the most financial aid often had to live in the dorms, because scholarships paid for that but not off-campus housing, even though the latter was far cheaper. So the kids living in the $1000 housing might not actually be wealthier than the ones in the cheaper "luxury" apartments.

Anyway, there's a ton that would be interesting to sort out here, but I suppose I find it interesting as well to just look at the fact that this was the chosen angle. Obviously, for a NYT audience, student life among state-school students in Missouri isn't going to be all that posh. These kids' crime seems to be that they aren't students at Oxford or Cambridge, although it's of course laid out as if their crime is being richer than some other students at their university, which, I mean, I'm sure they are, but I'm not sure that's the article's concern.

*One of the placed I ended up living in NYC had some of the ridiculous amenities (marble bathroom, and eventually, thanks to the landlord's growing desire to sell the place, stainless-steel appliances, as well as a gym I'd have had to pay to use and never actually saw), but I moved there from the previous same-rent apt. because that place - a top-floor Brooklyn walk-up with no amenities - had a bit of a carbon-monoxide problem. Sometimes "luxe" is what you end up with when you leave squalor, even if all you set out to find was non-squalor.

Matt said...

"luxury" is a funny word when used in relation to apartments. I assume it's a sort of technical term that means...something...but I don't know what. All I know is that many apartments I've looked at, in several different cities, have been listed as "luxury" apartments despite being distinctly lacking in anything I'd normally associate with luxury. Wikipedia suggests that it means that the building is less than 10 years old, but if that's so, no one is making sure the term is properly used, it seems to me.

(I had occasion to drive near the University of Missouri while driving cross country one time. I must have needed gas or food or something. The area near the university was pretty dumpy, so I can see why people might want to live further away. Going anywhere there will require a car anyway.)

Britta said...

What's tuition at U Missouri? What is average rent? I could see a UMC parent agree to pay for a more expensive apartment in return for their kid going somewhere with vastly cheaper tuition. Lets say a cheap place would be $400/month, a parent might think $2700 ($300 difference x 9 months) was worth it to save $10,000+ on tuition at an out of state or private school. Similarly if the kid gets a merit scholarship to U Missouri, the parent might be willing to take some of the money they would have spent on tuition and spend it on housing. I have a friend who got a full ride merit scholarship to an expensive school, and her parents definitely were more generous with their cash than they would have been had they been paying tuition. Even so, she was still saving them huge amounts of money.

Something I've realized about Americans is 1) we can't stand the idea of anyone not wealthy living well/enjoying life. We only like to give out charity if we can actively watch the people receiving it suffer. If students aren't malnourished in rat infested apartments, then they deserve to be burdened with a lifetime of student loans. Also, 2) whatever you spend money on is justified and necessary, and whatever anyone else spends money on is a frivolous waste. The idea that people might have different spending priorities never seems to occur to people. It's highly likely the people railing against tanning beds might be spending money in a way that Courtney thinks is irresponsible, but she doesn't have a friend whose a journalist at NYTimes to write about it. *

*And of course, Bourdieu has covered the class based factors of this in "Distinction"

Phoebe said...


Wikipedia seems to be saying that "luxury" is subjective. It's that which is directed at rich people. But because location and all kinds of idiosyncratic factors play into housing, one might end up paying less for "luxury," as was indeed my experience once in NYC. No-frills walk-ups are maybe just part of the city's romance, so there are enough people for whom those are actually preferable to amenity-having buildings. Or something.

Also, there are on the one hand buildings marketed as luxury (as in this case), and on the other, whichever colloquial uses of the term. These might not be the same. Some buildings will be the first but not the second, and vice versa.


Bourdieu, yes - one of the biggest influences on my amateur sociology! What's funny here, though, is that one is meant to view rage at the luxury-building-dwellers as the 99% against the 1%. What's between the lines, though, is this other category of people - many a NYT reader among them - for whom a granite countertop rental in Missouri is let's just say not the height of luxe. But it's more socially acceptable to object on behalf of the kids at that university who can't afford $700/month than to straightforwardly say, 'tacky'. Conveniently, I suppose, this Niedermeyer capital-b Building is also apparently cheaper to live in.

I think you're absolutely right re: the unknowns/unknowables. The problem with these sorts of ragefests is precisely that not everyone - indeed, no one - has gone and actually posted their full financial information. So any interpretation ends up plausible. And of course the commenters themselves aren't signing any kind of document to the effect of, they spend $0 on unnecessary primping/indulgence as is expected in whichever milieu they live in.

I'd also add another category, which would be the students who live in "luxury" - or dorms - because their parents are paying for all/some of their schooling, and have insisted that this is what they're willing to pay/chip in for. I had a situation along these lines - I worked during college, but not to the point of financial independence. My parents felt (and I'm not sure they were right, but they meant well, and in all fairness, the friends I was planning to live with did get broken into a reasonable amount) that the dorms were safer than the cheaper off-campus housing. It ended up being effectively up to them, so apart from one summer, I lived on-campus, with the lowest possible rip-off meal plan, but still not none at all. And then, as a self-supporting adult, I had plenty of opportunities to live in dingy walk-up apartments. It's not so hard for me to imagine that some of these Missouri students are living in "luxury" for similar reasons.

fourtinefork said...

Possibly of interest, there's an interesting post on Language Log about the language in real estate ads:

And, yes, Phoebe is right, we should judge the article by what it is, not what random reader (i.e., me) thinks it should have been about. I hate when people do that to me, so I should have the same courtesy to others! For once, I also read this article on paper so initially missed out on the comments. I'm currently catsitting for a friend with a ridiculously nice apartment, so living the life of the 1 percent, which includes NYT home delivery. That, to me, seems another class marker. Only fancy people read the real paper these days...