Stuff 101: College-Bound Kids Want All The ‘Essentials,’ So They Cram For The Trip To Campus

July 28, 2006 | Laura Sessions Stepp

It’s about all the stuff kids take to college.

You wouldn’t believe it.

Dell Inspiron laptop or MacBook. Bluetooth mouse. Printer/scanner/copier. Thirty-gigabyte iPod and speakers. Xbox for video games and DVDs. Joysticks. Plastic coat hangers…

Zach Boleyn, an Ellicott City 18-year-old, is heading soon to the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in his Dodge Durango. He says:

“I guess I need a couple of swimsuits, I want to learn to surf. I play golf so I’m taking my golf bag, my irons and woods. I can’t go without a hat, I’ve got five or six, my Titleist hat, a couple of Carolina hats, my Redskins hat and my Yankees hat and my sister gave me a Clemson hat so I guess I have to wear that when I visit her campus.”

He takes a breath.

“I’m gonna bring PlayStation 2 to have the DVD player. How many DVDs? Oh God. I’ve got the first season of ‘Entourage,’ the movie ‘Rounders.’ ‘American Beauty,’ ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Lord of the Rings,’ all of them. ‘The Wedding Crasher,’ ‘Old School,’ ‘Blow,’ ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin.’ “

One reason students like Boleyn take a lot of stuff is that they’ve already got a lot of stuff. According to generational consultants William Strauss and Neil Howe, $170 billion was spent on 12- to 19-year-olds in 2004, up from $153 billion five years earlier. Starting six years ago, retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Target and the Container Store woke up to college students as a separate target. Until then, they had pitched back-to-school advertising primarily at the K-12 crowd.

Each year, the National Retail Federation asks incoming college students how much they and their families plan to spend on college. Last year, students estimated they would spend $34.4 billion on college merchandise, up one-third from the year before. Freshmen planned on spending the most—an average of almost $1,200 per student.

Virtually every major retailer now offers a special “back to college” page online with checklists of essentials (shower caddy) and decorating ideas (beachcomber theme, anyone?). The Bed Bath & Beyond Web site contains a college gift registry, designed like a wedding registry except that “wedding date” has been replaced by “move-in date.” Now Aunt Clara can find out what Caitlin might like for her first year away from home besides the highly unsatisfactory response “just money.”

Retailers’ pitches are not subtle. Exhibit A: a 59-page brochure from Target that presumably was mailed to millions of homes. Titled “,” it offers, among approximately 600 other items, rubber cubes that fit over a bed’s legs and raise the bed so a student can “store more.”

Digital camera. Palm Pilot. BlackBerry. Metal racks to store DVDs and CDs. Storage bins to store everything else. Padded coat hangers .

The second page of the Target catalogue suggests six things a student should do over the last six weeks “before you load up the station wagon.” (“Station wagon?” Not SUV?) Week 5 it’s this: “Time to hit up emotional parents for a reloadable Target Giftcard. They load it. You spend it and call for more.”

And the strategic: “Throw in an ‘I’m gonna miss you’ to score a few extra bucks.”

Parents of freshmen, anticipating the departure of their beloved children, are indeed an easy target. So are grandparents and friends of parents who are spending more on the younger generation than they used to, according to Strauss and Howe.

Administrators who work in residence life know how times have changed. “My parents sent me $20 every two weeks when I was in college. Now our students have an ATM card,” says Charles Gibbs, dean of residence life at Howard University. “They’re not just doing ramen noodles. They want steak.”

“In my day, you brought a couple of suitcases, a typewriter, stereo and maybe a TV,” says Jerry Dieringer, assistant vice president for housing at Towson University. “There’s now this expectation among students that they have to have the same basic equipment their peers have.”

Of course that has been true for generations. But the definition of basic has expanded. Is the Halo 2 video game that much better than the original? Does a young woman really need 12 pairs of high heels?

“I’ve thought a lot about that,” says Sara Kuzmik, on her way to Emory. She wore heels every day to the Potomac School in McLean and owns “10 to 15 pairs.”

“There will be nights you’ll want to dress up,” she says. “It will be hard not to bring some.” Along with all the things she wasn’t allowed to wear at Potomac: T-shirts, sweat shirts, sweat pants and jeans.

One nice dark suit. Three or four pairs of sneakers including at least one pair that don’t look like the dog barfed on them. Lilly Pulitzer sundress. Rainbow sandals. Hair dryer. Electronic hair straightener. Curling iron. Tons of hair gel. Maybe some of those padded hangers for sweaters.

Lily Boleyn, Zach’s twin, is making up her own list of must-takes to Clemson University, where she has a scholarship to play soccer. Along with shinguards and soccer socks, American Eagle sandals and Old Navy flip-flops, sundresses from Nordstrom and bottles of Dove shampoo, will be a flat pillow she’s had for so long that the original cloth cover is gone. “It’s like a bunch of stuff stuck together, kinda gross,” she admits. “But I love it.”

Allie Hernandez, leaving home in Bethesda to go to Johns Hopkins, is taking her stuffed dog named Nubbles. Willie Morrison, on his way to Occidental College in Los Angeles from Washington, has a feather pillow. “He’s coming with me,” Morrison says.

Also coming with him are 20 pairs of shorts and 10 pairs of long pants, both khakis and jeans. In addition, he’s planning to bring: jerseys from high school to kick around in, 10 polo shirts in various colors, a big fan to keep cool, his Citizen Cope and Muhammad Ali posters and his Madden 2006 game “until the 2007 game comes along.” He’ll be playing baseball so he can’t forget his cleats, glove and 15 pairs of baseball socks. Oh, and of course there’s his acoustic guitar.

“I can see myself overpacking,” Morrison, 18, admits. “I’d rather have too much than too little.”

He also asks for understanding for his generation. “A lot of kids are scared about going to college,” he says. “They dread going into a room that is bare and unrecognizable. They overindulge in order to make it as comfortable and familiar as they can, to hide their anxiety.”

Many of these young people have enjoyed, in larger numbers than in the past, a private bedroom, and cannot imagine not having everything there when they need—make that want—it. In a room that “isn’t all yours,” says Morrison, “you could lose your identity.” And so you have to bring your Andy Warhol posters and Biggy Bear, 1,000 photos of your friends and your boyfriend pillow. (The latter, by the way, is the stuffed bed rest with arms, known to old folks as a reading pillow. Its name is said to come from the fact that when you lean back into it, it feels like someone is hugging you from behind.)

Eggshell mattress pad. Down comforter, matching bedsheets of at least 200-thread count and bolster. Hot pot (not allowed in the dorm room but sneaked in anyway). George Foreman grill (also not allowed in dorm room). Microfridge (a nifty microwave/refrigerator combo), if not provided by the college. At least two power strips. Freestanding hanger organizer for excess hangers.

In theory, students need less because colleges now provide—or make it easy to rent—items that students used to bring from home like mini refrigerators, risers for beds and carpeting. In addition, college authorities usually send to incoming freshmen the names of their roommates well in advance of the start of school, and suggest strongly that roommates divide up their lists of essentials.

Has any of this resulted in less stuff arriving in the minivan? Not really, says Scott Francis, associate director of residence life at George Mason University.

“We see both roommates bringing enough for both of them,” he says. “They’ll each bring a TV and you’d be hard-pressed to find one with less than a 19-inch screen. I’ve been in rooms with two gaming systems and four controllers hooked up to two TVs, facing away from each other on opposite sides of the room.”

College administrators like Francis have their summer orientation speech down pat and the part of it addressed to parents includes something like this:

“When you get home, take your child to his or her room, have them take a look around and convince them they don’t have to take it all.”

But it’s a losing battle. Because once everything’s stacked in the room and the computer is hooked up, you can bet the new freshman will look around and think—or maybe Mom or Dad will think—“Hey, this room could sure use a bigger trash can.” And off they’ll go to the nearest mall for more stuff.


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