The student princes

Observations on America

Spare a thought for the students at Arizona State University who will this semester be obliged to shack up in the new $130m (£74.3m) Vista del Sol complex. Not for them a spartan, shared dorm with a communal bathroom down the hall. No, the poor little rich kids of ASU will have to make do with what could pass for a five-star Caribbean beach resort. Rooms open onto a palm-lined pool where light reading can be attempted on the sundeck's colourful lounge cabanas. Between lectures and tanning, undergrads can take in a movie at the in-house multiplex or watch football on giant TVs in the cocktail bar-cum-common room.

Arizona State is not alone in offering facilities more suited to a luxury hotel than an institution of higher learning. There is now such intense competition between universities that what Money magazine describes as "a luxury arms race" has broken out to bag not only the brightest but, perhaps more importantly, America's most affluent students - opulent facilities equal the offspring of the well-heeled equal fat fees. And admissions departments know that the rich cannot bear to see their little darlings suffer the indignities of, well, college life.

"I wouldn't say they're spoiled. It's just they've been raised differently," said Michael Coakley, Arizona State's director of housing, without a hint of irony. "Shared bathrooms? Not really their scene."

As the Wall Street Journal put it: "The best way to attract wealthy children is to provide the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed: five-star hotels, fine dining and plush gyms. Today's young heirs don't just want libraries; they want world-class party pads and 15-person hot tubs."

"You don't know what will give you the edge," said Dave Van de Walle, of U Sphere, a company that "matches kids and colleges". "Harvard or Yale, that's one thing. If you're everyone else, every little edge helps."

Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where Barack Obama recently implored new graduates to devote their lives to public service, offers inmates a new ice-skating rink, a multiplex, a vast fitness centre and an 11-building arts complex. The new term sees the opening of a $47m student centre featuring a cafe offering "Mongolian grill entrées".

At DePaul University, Chicago, students must pay up to $26,150 per term for a full-time doorman, security cameras, an in-house Starbucks, a nail spa, a tanning centre and "indoor, heated car parking". Tuition fees are an additional $25,490 per year.

The prize for most pampering university goes to the aptly named High Point University, North Carolina, listed as the "up-and-coming school" in the influential US News and World Report rankings. All 2,800 undergrads are promised "an extraordinary education in a fun environment", which means a van touring the campus offering free ice creams, valet parking for those attending lectures, live music in the cafeteria, and, on birthdays, a card with a Starbucks voucher inside, signed by the university president.

It all makes Princeton's new $136m student residence with traditional Hogwarts-style dorms seem as if it's not really trying. What does it think it is? A hallowed place of learning?

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran