Information for the parents of college students
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How Accurate Is Your Picture of College Life?

You’re sending your student off to college for four (or maybe more) years. You worry because he is going to be on his own, and maybe you struggle (just a little) with your feelings about the empty nest.  And you wonder what life will be like for your student at school.

Parents who have experienced college life themselves, may think they know a little about what to expect. (But they often forget their experiences may be twenty years or more old. Things have changed.)  Other parents, who may not have attended college themselves, do not have their own experiences to guide their expectations.

So how do we know anything about college life? For many of us, our source is what we see and hear in the media – news stories, films, TV, and advertising.  College students – and college faculty and officials – will quickly tell you that that image is often, very often, less than accurate.  One study of first year college students found that 77% of students surveyed felt that the media over-exaggerates the excitement of college.

Journalistic coverage of colleges and universities is often around crisis situations – sexual assault, hazing, drugs; student loan debt, or sports. A study conducted by the Brookings Institute several years ago discovered that only 1.4 percent of news coverage in this country deals with education.  Of that 1.4 percent, only about 27 percent deals with colleges and universities.  Twenty-seven percent of 1.4 percent isn’t much coverage!  This study concluded that “education news coverage suffers from problems related both to quantity and to quality.”

The picture of college life presented by entertainment media is often based on stereotypes.  If we base our understanding of college life on TV, films and advertising, we see students who do little studying, party constantly, are either less-than-academically minded jocks, shallow sorority girls, or bow-tie wearing nerds.  Students are lazy, partiers who are looking for sex, alcohol and drugs, or they are social misfits who spend all of their time in the library.  Students live in king-sized dorm rooms and when they do go to class, spend their time listening (or not) to either boring or totally eccentric professors.

Even the admission material provided by most colleges show sunny days, autumn gold trees, green lawns, and students either lounging or playing frisbee on the quad or animatedly engaged in projects with smiling faculty members.

Entertainment media do not claim to be presenting documentaries about college life with accuracy.  Most of the day-to-day life of college students would probably not make very good entertainment. As viewers, we don’t necessarily want to see what is real; we want to see what makes a good story line.  However, as parents, hungry for information about our students’ lives, we need to be careful that we do not assume that the college life that we see is the college life our student is experiencing.

Many students may be fortunate to live in beautiful, large dorm rooms, they may find time to play frisbee with friends on a beautiful lawn, they may have quirky professors, skip class, party or drink.  It depends on our students.

What these pictures do not reveal, however, is our students’ lives outside of the classroom, their involvement in campus activities or community service initiatives, their time spent studying or in the lab or at seemingly endless athletic, music or drama practices,  their time spent at a job that helps pay the tuition, their internships preparing them for their career, the diversity of most campus communities, or the intellectual partnerships that can form between faculty members and students.

Parents and students can, and should, enjoy media representations of college life. But parents, and students, need to remember that these representations are often using fictional license.  Problems can arise when parents and students perceive these images as accurate pictures of college.

Parents worry about the behavior they see.  Students feel increased anxiety and/or have the sense that they must be “doing college wrong” if their lives don’t match what they see in the media or what they perceive others are doing.  Several studies, for instance, have reported that many students believe that other students are drinking more and more often than is actually the case.  Media representations may contribute to that perception.

If you have a student heading to college, talk to him about what he actually knows about college life.  How has he gathered the information?  How accurate does he think that it is?

And as a parent, remember that the view of college that you see may be less than accurate as well.  Smile at the portrayals in the media, and keep an open mind.

Related posts:

The Culture Shock of Adjusting to College

The Good, the Bad, (and Sometimes the Ugly) of the First Year College Experience

 

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