James Werrell

College students, grab a mop and a pail

The girls from my hometown were visiting friends on campus, and my roommates and I offered to let them stay in our apartment if they needed a place to crash for the night. They arrived early in the evening, peered in at our living room, turned silently and left to rent a motel room.

We could have used a maid service.

In retrospect, it isn't hard to understand why the girls left. If it was a typical night -- and the only atypical nights were those just before our parents arrived for a visit -- the apartment would have looked like a temporary shelter used by hoboes and prison escapees.

The tables would have been covered with empty or near-empty bottles and cans; the ashtrays would have been overflowing and other flat spaces would have sported uneaten food, magazines and album covers. The floor would have been gritty. The kitchen sink would have been full of dirty dishes, and clothes would have been strewn throughout the apartment.

We probably should have put up a warning sign: "Those who pass beyond this point will enter the dwelling place of cretinous slobs." But our apartment was not too much different from those of our friends, and almost no one except parents or girls with weak stomachs complained about the squalor.

I thought that living in a ratty apartment was just a rite of passage for college students, and visits to my son's college apartment tended to reinforce that idea. Thus it surprised me to read that some college students now are hiring cleaning services to pick up after them.

While a cleaning service would have been handy back in my college days, we might as well have wished for limousines, catered meals and having our laundry done somewhere other than the coin-operated washateria across the street. We might as well have wished for chocolate mints on our pillows.

But now, apparently, campus cleaning services are cropping up all over the country, with names such as DormAid, CollegeBellhop, Soapy Joe's and DormMom. When frat boys are finished trashing their house during a weekend of heavy revelry, they just call the cleaners to come in and mop up the mess.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this phenomenon is that students and cleaning services have conspired to give it a noble motive: "We help kids stay organized and focused on studies instead of trying to find space in the laundry room," said Mike Kopko, who cofounded DormAid two years ago while he was a student at Harvard.

I can envision a college student sending off an urgent SOS to his parents: "Dear Mom and Dad, please send money for the maid. I have been so busy cleaning my dorm room that I'm flunking biology. Hurry, my hands are red and raw from doing dishes!"

Well, sorry, but hiring people to clean up after your kids at college is a mistake. While parents may mean well, they are allowing their kids to skip a crucial stage in their journey to adulthood and self-reliance.

One big reason that college kids -- at least those who don't go to military academies -- live like slobs is because their parents aren't standing over them telling them to pick up their rooms. They do it because they can, because they're free to decide all by themselves whether to hang their clothes neatly in the closet or throw them in a pile in the corner. They're free to decide whether to do the dishes now or put it off until sometime in the next millennium or until the roaches stage a coup, whichever comes first. They're free to do the laundry on a regular basis or just use the towel that smells a little less like the bottom of an aquarium than the other one.

After going through this experience, some may remain slobs forever. It's probably in their DNA.

But many others will learn that they are happier when they try to strike a reasonable balance between order and chaos, cleanliness and filth, white and dingy, pressed and wrinkled. And they will learn that this requires a certain quota of self-discipline.

But you can't learn that if Soapy Joe or DormMom is walking behind you with a mop, broom and dustpan, ready to make your world sparkle every time you mess it up.

What parents need to do is hire a different kind of service -- Intimidators, BigBadBob's, DormNazi -- that provides burly bruisers who go to dorms and frat houses, and stand in the doorway yelling: "All right, you punks, clean up this pigsty pronto or you're out with the garbage!"