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Put away that toga

It seems that college move-in day 2013 is a lot less 'Animal House' and a lot more 'Wall Street'

August 31, 2013

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The evening before my wife and I took our eldest child to college, we pulled out a DVD of "Animal House" and watched it together in high definition. It's still pretty funny 35 years after it was first released. This isn't real-life college, we warned our daughter, but someday you may look back and see striking similarities between these Faber College miscreants and your own experience.

Now that we have returned, having dropped her off with a minivan full of clothing, books, electronics and the other standard dormitory fare, I have to wonder if we're mistaken. Is it possible college has changed?

Not that we expected to run into some contemporary versions of Otter, Boone, Pinto, Flounder, D-Day or Bluto, but we had in the back of our minds expected to see something like we encountered in the 1970s on our move-in days — a campus full of young people who had no idea what was going to happen next and perhaps some clueless administrators milling about.

What we encountered instead was a well-oiled machine. Signs and personnel in matching polo shirts directed us to drop-off zones, greeters welcomed us, teams of student athletes unloaded the car and delivered its contents to the appropriate room where the floor's resident assistant and student academic adviser had already posted notes of introduction — and soon after dropped in to introduce themselves in person.

There was live entertainment, boxed lunches, seminars, open houses and receptions. It had all the trappings of a standard corporate retreat: highly organized, thoughtfully planned and cheerfully produced. What could I possibly complain about? The strawberry floating in the complimentary lemonade was sliced too thick?

Oh, we had to make a run to Target for a few items, and parking spots were far-flung, but puh-lease. The roommate, the daughter of a patent lawyer and science teacher from St. Paul, couldn't have been nicer. And we even accomplished our top goal of the day — we didn't make a big scene when it was time to say good-bye.

But here's where it got a little surprising. Parents were invited to attend two assemblies. In the first, a panel of students took questions; in the second, the school's president and top administrators did much the same. This is what we learned:

That it's not unusual for a student to spend his Saturday nights working at the library and then going to his dorm to play video games. That the chief complaint of students is not having enough hours in the day to study and meet their responsibilities. And that the biggest concern of parents seems to be making certain their children are following the most lucrative career paths.

Oh, Faber College, what has become of you?

Mind you, we're not idiots. We fully expected everyone to be on their best behavior with so many check-writing parents on campus. But it was curious that even the parents seemed only mildly interested in matters of student life — despite the fact that this particular school had drawn considerable attention this year for charges that the administration had not responded properly to allegations of sexual assaults on campus.

And this was a liberal arts college. Liberal arts. You know, sitting around talking about Proust and Maslow or late-night debates over the Wessex novels of Thomas Hardy. Folk music. Frisbees in the quad. And yes, maybe even the big toga party at the Delta House. At least it was back in the day.

Maybe this is what the high cost of education in the midst of an economic downturn has done. College today is about getting ahead economically, not becoming a better-educated, more critical thinker. Or maybe they've just gotten very good at keeping it all hidden until after 5 p.m. on move-in day when the parents are all hustled off campus.

In either case, it makes one feel old and nostalgic for simpler times and youthful exhuberance. For that, there's always the DVD player and the late John Belushi's amazing performance. But one word of warning, don't bother with the extras on the 2008 re-release. The cast, aside from Kevin Bacon, hasn't aged nearly as well as the movie.

Peter Jensen