The merits of a minimalist college system

When I was a first year, one of the aspects of Grinnell that really stood out to me was the incredible array of free stuff, services and top-notch facilities available for everyone. Coming from nine years of a relatively spartan education in the underfunded Chicago public school system, this was entirely new to me, and a pretty welcome change. As a senior, I’ve finally begun to seriously question my initial impressions.

I’ll begin with something I started to question last semester. As I realized that I would be entering what many call “the real world” in December of this year, I asked myself: If outside Grinnell is the “real world,” does that mean that Grinnell is not “real”? Is it less “real”? Does it not exist? This was a fun philosophical exercise, especially when I started asking my friends and getting a variety of unsure responses.

There are many opinions as to why Grinnell is not part of the “real world,” but I think that many, myself included, think that it is because we are offered more here than we could ever possibly want. If you live on-campus, you are forced to be on a meal plan, and are penalized with a bad deal if you get anything less than 15 meals per week, even though we ought to be encouraged to do more cooking on our own if college is truly going to prepare us for life after college. If you want exercise in the winter, you run, bike and lift weights inside an artificial environment that’s been tailored to your needs instead of shoveling snow outside yourself. Classes—especially 8 a.m. classes—are under-appreciated, despite professor salaries constituting about one-third of college expenses. Looking at the number of hours people work for money here, and you find it varies considerably. International students that have work-study-heavy financial aid awards work the most, while American students with the privilege of a yearly stipend from parents work the least—or not at all!

My suggestion? We ought to consider adopting the model of a minimalist college, which would prepare us much more for the “real world” than the current system. In this proposed system, we would have to make the most of the limited amount we would have, just like everybody else in the world. Some might say this would be constricting, but I think quite the opposite, for two reasons. First, scarcity and necessity beget invention—people will be more strongly motivated to be more creative and flexible. Think of the nights where you get sick of dining hall food because your meal plan dictates that you eat there and options might be limited. You mix and match, and voila! Deliciousness you couldn’t have imagined otherwise! Second, whenever I ask someone what they like most about Grinnell, they nearly always say “the people,” whether they are a first-year or a tenured professor. No one ever says “the extended Grill hours” or “the fancy projectors that are in every classroom in Noyce” or even “the gym.” We at Grinnell are smart, creative folk, I think, and I believe we’re perfectly capable of handling a little more adversity with gusto.

The kicker for the idea of the “minimalist college” is of course, lower costs. Given Grinnell’s endowment, I think tuition ought to be virtually free. Looking at the math, we see that tuition accounts for only 25 percent of our $80 million per year income and expenditures. Our minimalism could certainly save that much! We could take a look at the services that we use the least and eliminate them, we could commit to working with the facilities that we already have instead of spending irrationally large amounts of money on new ones. We could have students provide services to the community around us (through increased work-study programs/hours), as opposed to mostly the other way around. Again, the benefits of these changes speak for themselves — free tuition for all who are qualified to go here, enhanced connections with the community and an experience that really prepares us for the “real world.” One primary drawback is a sense of decreased convenience, which we’ll be able to overcome more quickly than we’d expect. Another important drawback includes political obstacles, which ought to addressed carefully, rationally and publicly. I can’t prescribe the details as to how this ought to be done — that’s for all of us to think about and decide!

What shouldn’t be surprising is that Grinnell was considering adopting a tuition-free model not too long ago. What made that initiative stop? Take a short walk north of 10th street.