06/07/2010 03:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

College and the New Animal House

The 1978 film Animal House, which featured the late John Belushi as the head prankster of Delta Tau Chi, a college fraternity whose members want as little to do with books as possible, remains one of the best slapstick comedies of all time. But these days the new college animal house has taken a very different turn. As the New York Times recently noted in an article titled, "Colleges Extend the Welcome Mat to Students' Pets," more and more colleges are allowing students to bring their pets on campus.

Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, has a dorm, nicknamed "Pet Central" with a kennel on its first floor. Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, has set aside rooms for students with pets, and even prestigious MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, allows cats (provided they are neutered or spayed) in some dorm rooms.

On the surface, the new animal house story seems little more than a case of education-lite. But what makes the story worth taking seriously is that it is symptomatic of a growing trend -- the willingness of colleges to view their students as customers who need to be continually wooed.

This view of students is particularly pronounced in admissions offices, as Dianne Lynch, the president of Stephens College, noted when she told the Times that in an increasingly competitive recruiting market for top students, a pet-friendly school has a way of differentiating itself. Lynch may be rationalizing a gimmicky strategy, but she has a point. It is difficult for students to grasp the intellectual merits of a college after a one-day visit, and even harder for them when they are still in high school to distinguish between a first-rate and a second-rate scholar.

By contrast, what students can absorb from a one-day visit to a college are the tangibles. They can see if the campus is pretty, if there is a food court that stays open late at night, if the dorms are comfortable places to live. The ability to keep a pet on campus is another of these tangibles. At college a student won't get cooking as good as mom's or a private bathroom, but if Fluffy or Spot can be brought along, there will at least be a reminder of the pleasures of home.

It is hard to imagine the new pet welcome mat that colleges have extended coming to a good end. Will Fluffy and Spot want to stay cooped up in a dorm room all day? Are their owners going to clean up after them? Will the next student demand be for a college veterinary service on the order of the student health service?

As the battle intensifies for students who can pay the $40,000 to $50,000 per year that a growing number of colleges charge, college admissions officers in pet-friendly schools will, however, be in no hurry to see the institutions they represent change course and suddenly forbid cats and dogs on campus. Pet friendly schools have, for the moment, gained an edge on their rivals, and they know, even when they are being cynical, how difficult it is to convey what serious, college-level work amounts to in an admissions video or brochure.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author most recently of Winning the Peace: America's Coming of Age as a Superpower.