I saw it for the first time as I was hurrying across a campus to audit a class. The sleek, shining object traveling in the opposite direction looked like a miniature luxury sports car with a small orange banner on the roof.
It was a food-delivery robot. I found myself humming Queen's 1989 song, now available as background music for a TV commercial: "I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now!"
Since that first encounter with the sleek, shining object I have found that several institutions offer this service to students in residence halls or plan to offer it in the near future. But is it a service, like cleaning or police protection, or is it the latest amenity on campuses already blessed with other amenities?
The websites of dining services vendors use images and words suggesting that robot-delivered meals are a logical extension of an overall corporate goal: to meet both the needs and the wants of their customers, particularly the full-time students living on campus. The websites and announcements of the colleges and universities that offer robot-delivered meals are more ambiguous. Words often suggest an extension or expansion of services routinely available to resident students. Pictures, however, suggest that a novel, glamorous amenity has been introduced.
Explanations of why the new service or amenity is offered vary. For instance, an institution located where most nights are cold and winters can be snowy, emphasizes the convenience and safety of ordering meals without having to walk across campus to a dining hall. Another institution features meal-delivering robots and package-delivering drones in ads that tout its technology-rich environment. A third describes the robots as tools to simplify their students' busy lives.
Whether generated by vendors or by client campuses, the promotional materials do not address the issue of cost. At some campuses, a delivery fee is added to the list price of the meal. Where delivery is advertised as "free of charge," it seems reasonable to assume that the cost of purchasing and maintaining the robots is included or will soon be included in dining services contracts. In the first instance, the new service or amenity generates yet another income-based difference in how students experience life on the same campus. In the second instance, the cost of the service or amenity is hidden from sight and ultimately spread among users and non-users alike.
The shining objects that deliver pizza to campus residents are only the latest example of a trend that economists and pundits have documented and discussed for decades. At all institutions, but especially those with young resident students, instructional costs have risen over time but generally at lower rates than non-instructional costs, such as administration, legal services or security. When analyzing non-instructional costs, however, scholars and laymen typically do not distinguish between budget items that meet mission-critical needs, such as support staff or equipment to enable faculty members to perform at their best, and items that meet customer wants, such as customized meal delivery.
Since the 1980s, experts on the economics of higher education have collected impressive sets of data on the rising cost of college attendance and have interpreted the data for the benefit of legislators, philanthropists and parents of prospective students. All stakeholders are in their debt, especially for documenting how declining state support has made life more difficult for public universities and why tuition-dependent private institutions compete fiercely for students able to pay their way or take on large loans. With all due respect to economists and their many contributions, however, we need more input on the topic of college costs from colleagues in other disciplines, such as anthropology and sociology.
Why? Because for the past couple of decades we have accepted and perhaps unintentionally fostered an institutional culture that is inconsistent with institutional mission statements, potentially harmful to our youngest students and dangerous for our society.
Let's face it: our mission statements make for boring reading. With minor variations, they proclaim our commitment to academic excellence and to access, grounded in a common belief that our society and our economy need college-educated participants. The statements are dull, but the commitment they proclaim is real. For decades, we have made major investments in scholarships and guaranteed loans. The percentage of young adults enrolled in college has risen steadily. Many institutions have found ways to improve retention and graduation. Yet at the same time, we have engaged in practices that align all too well with the most problematic trends in the larger society: unequal distribution of wealth and even more unequal distribution of opportunity.
The food-delivery robots, especially if we picture them traveling to the tune of "I want it all," are a perfect metaphor for a culture of entitlement that divides students, especially those attending large and diverse institutions. Does it matter that the use of robots may widen the gap between students who can afford such discretionary expenditures and those who cannot? Does it matter that not walking to the dining hall may limit opportunities to interact with other, perhaps less affluent students? Does it matter that our practices encourage young undergraduates living on a campus to avoid inconvenience and discomfort, in obvious contradiction to mission statements that tout their alma mater's commitment to community service and to charitable works of every stripe?
To the extent that the culture of entitlement divides students and encourages the youngest among them to stay in their bubbles, it must be reversed. Why? Because with each passing year, that culture widens the gap between not only the affluent and the less-affluent students on college campuses but also between young Americans enrolled in college and those in the workforce and the military.
College students already enjoy services and amenities that are out of reach for other young people. Yet they clamor for more: small classes, tutors and mental health counselors, spacious and well-appointed living quarters, state-of-the-art recreational facilities, and, most recently, free laundry detergent and robot-delivered meals. Students feel entitled not merely to an education in a reasonably safe environment but also to a certain campus lifestyle.
The problem is that the culture of entitlement has no limits or boundaries. Institutions that encourage that culture to remain competitive, or simply accept it as inevitable and irreversible, should pause to consider the long-term implications. The most obvious and alarming implication is that today's young college graduates may carry the sense of entitlement to particular lifestyles into future leadership roles. And that they may achieve leadership roles with minimal understanding of contemporaries employed at low wages with no prospects for advancement or enlisted in the military with the prospect of deployment to dangerous spots around the globe.
Historians might argue that none of this is new. Certainly, the college graduates of past generations -- mostly males from financially secure families -- lived very different lives than their contemporaries in the workforce. But their numbers were small and their campus lifestyles, even at the most exclusive institutions, were quite Spartan by today's standards. Moreover, male college students could not opt out of military service.
The gap between our young "haves" and "have nots" is already too wide to be filled by providing scholarships for high school graduates of exceptional academic promise or from particularly disadvantaged backgrounds. The current size of the student debt surely dispels the notion that low- and middle-income high school students will join the ranks of their more privileged contemporaries if they just borrow enough. Higher education faces economic challenges, of course. But it also faces cultural challenges that we should understand better and discuss more seriously -- hence my suggestion that colleagues from the social sciences become more directly involved.
A moratorium in the race to offer more services and amenities to young undergraduates as an indispensable part of the college experience could benefit both individuals and society. The possible advantages? For all college students, a lowered sense of entitlement and a greater awareness of the privileges they already enjoy, even in the absence of robot-delivered meals. For most families, less pressure to borrow and to postpone saving for retirement. For society as a whole, a renewed commitment to reduce extreme inequality of wealth and opportunity and to support the allocation of public and private resources where they are needed most -- for stronger K-12 schools, public health, affordable housing and critical infrastructure.