As Millennials are set to become the most educated generation in history, it has never been so important to properly prepare young folks for how college truly works. Which is harder than you might think, because Hollywood is constantly filling their smartypants heads with the wrong information. For example ...
Ah, the dean -- the end-of-level boss any fun-loving college kid has to deal with at some point in their education. But are they really gods on campus, Judge-Dredd-like adjudicators who wield absolute power over the lives of their students, kicking them out for the slightest infraction / bong hit?
In Monsters University, Mike and Sully are immediately expelled by Dean Hardscrabble for their spooky hijinks without so much as a tribunal or a conversation with the university president.
In Animal House, whenever one of the Deltas' "pranks" goes awry, it's always Dean Wormer who arrives to deal with the situation.
"Hey, why are you going over our grades with us instead of our academic advisors?"
The dean in Necessary Roughness is in the process of shutting down the football program of a major college, which would be a feat slightly more impressive than teleporting the entire school to another dimension. Hell, the dean in Patch Adams has the power to punish Robin Williams merely for being too happy.
But in reality, the power of these administrators isn't that big of a deal, mostly because there are so. Many. Deans. The title of dean is often honorary, and deanships come with so few actual responsibilities that schools hand them out like particularly easy scout badges to their senior staff members. In plenty of colleges, there are now deans for every silly department. In real life, if a club/frat/sorority was doing dangerous or stupid stuff, they'd probably have to deal directly with a faculty advisor, who would then probably report to some kind of designated disciplinary group, who would probably then report to some other board. Even worse, there are real deans out there who hate that they're now deans instead of professors, because they're totally unable to do anything they wanted to. The red tape they thought a dean could clip had more red tape behind it. So sure, don't fuck around with a dean, but mostly because they're likely miserable enough already.
According to Hollywood, the first major hurdle a college kid faces happens long before their first keg stand: admission. Waiting on the envelopes that decide your future can be so nerve-wracking! The tension! The drama! The disappointments and triumphs! Of course, it wouldn't be as dramatic if those kids could simply turn to one of a hundred other colleges that are sure to accept them -- which is exactly what they can do in reality.
Getting into college has literally never been easier in the entire history of higher education. By some estimates, there are up to 44 percent more seats available for every student who wants to go to college in the United States. Sure, it's still a total crapshoot to get into prestigious universities like Harvard or Yale. But that pretty decent college two blocks down from your favorite Burger King? Walk in with a credit card, and you get as much learning as your brain can handle.
So consider the lead in Accepted, who, thanks to his straight-C average, is unable to get in anywhere, and thus constructs an entire fake school in order to fool his parents -- a ruse which includes completely renovating an abandoned hospital(!!). The movie is set in Ohio, which has a number of schools that would probably happily take our poor hero. For example, there's the nearby University of Akron, which has a 97 percent acceptance rate.
Glee is another show set in Ohio that bafflingly overlooks this. At one point, state-championship-winning quarterback and glee club leader Finn has a chance to play a football game in front of a scout from Ohio State, but his chances of wooing the school fall through when the scout ends up much more enamored of another player. So instead of accepting an almost guaranteed spot at a large number of Mid American Conference schools (or even Division II or III colleges in Ohio, including football powerhouse Mount Union), Finn gives up on the idea of college altogether and joins the Army, where he poetically winds up shooting himself in the foot.
Pfft, name one current pro player who went to a MAC school besides those 74.
When it comes to letters of recommendation, Hollywood seems to think that colleges have the same mentality as a street gang -- the only way you get in is if someone cool vouches for you (also, if you want to get into Harvard, you need to kill a snitch while the dean of admissions watches). A letter of recommendation is a guaranteed way to stand out from all the other applicants. Unfortunately, because Hollywood has convinced everyone it's so important, it no longer is.
Partially as a result of too many misleading TV plots, the recommendation letter market has become completely saturated. Many colleges now receive thousands of letters a year. It's nuts. This is especially the case for the Ivy League, where every other kid's dad is golf buddies with someone in the Fortune 500. In 2017, a former Dartmouth admissions counselor admitted that even letters of recommendation from former presidents and olympians all blur together after a while. In fact, the one that's made the most difference was from a school custodian whom a student had become friends with.
So why does Hannah Montana's older brother Jackson feel the need to slave away for his next-door neighbor? He wants a recommendation letter, and ends up giving his neighbor massages and pedicures and doing his laundry. Even their dad gets dragged into it, forced to go on a date with the neighbor's obnoxious sister. In the end, Jackson rips up the recommendation letter, which in reality would alter his chances of getting in about as much as ripping up the college janitor's second napkin while he's eating at Quizno's.
And it's not like Hollywood writers seem unaware of how pointless these letters are, given how often they let their characters fuck them up to make a point. When Doogie Howser has to write a recommendation letter for his best friend Vinnie, he winds up screwing him over by badmouthing his achievements. This doesn't (as Hollywood tells us) destroy their friendship and Vinnie's future, but happily teaches Dougie a lesson in friendship. Meanwhile, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl ends with the titular dying girl posthumously explaining in a recommendation letter to a film school why the titular "Me" had missed so much school -- to hang out with her, a dying girl. If terminally ill people could guilt NYU into accepting C-students, a lot more Make-A-Wish kids would receive bribes to write recommendation letters.
Yet another hilarious plot device! Dad moves into college with his son, they get closer than they thought they would, and hilarity ensues despite the implication that the "adult" in this situation seemingly has nowhere else to go. Surprisingly, Hollywood kinda gets tidbits correct here and there on this subject -- it just completely misses the point of second chance education.
In An Extremely Goofy Movie, our ol' pal Goofy loses his job and finds out that he needs to go back to college in order to reenter the workforce. Forget about the fact that he was more or less a line worker in a factory; it sets up the entire central conflict that both Goofy and his son Max have a lot of learnin' to do about each other.
Walt Disney Pictures
Over in Arrested Development, Michael Bluth chooses to move in with his son George Michael at UC Irvine while attending the University of Phoenix online. The forced close proximity that the duo used to value when living in the attic of the model home has now become a point of tension in their lives.
So the reality is somewhere in between. Parents are now taking more unique routes to further their education, be it part-time evening classes at a local college, or online classes, or even specialized certificate programs. They're going back to school at higher rates than ever before. What they're not doing is making much of an attempt to get into wacky shenanigans with their kids. They're goddamned serious about this education stuff, with plenty of college kids pointing out that their parents are often working harder in classes than they are.
Weirdly enough, a number of parents are going back to school so that they'll be better equipped to help their kids with homework. Math is hard, guys.
Being a college professor must be a sweet gig, right? You work few hours and earn crazy amounts of money, and if you land tenure, you'd have to set a student on fire before you could get fired. So it makes sense that a bunch of smartypants protagonists get to become professors at the end of their stories, retiring from hijinks to inspire the next generation of all-white genius heroes.
This happens to sort-of-alright architect Ted Mosby. After losing his job, as a consolation prize for being stood up at the altar, his love rival pulls a few strings and gets Ted a position teaching architecture at Columbia University. Columbia University. Because he knows a guy who knows a guy. We're not even entirely sure Ted has more than a bachelor's degree.
In the penultimate episode of Girls, after fans have spent an entire season worrying about her future, Hannah gets also gets this last-minute parachute thrown at her. Thanks to her being a "hot shot" writer, a cool upstate New York college has offered Hannah a job teaching "the internet" to kids who were probably contributing to BuzzFeed before she even figured out how to pick another background for her WordPress blog. Still, the job is steady (with benefits, she proudly exclaims), and will allow her to amply provide for herself and her newborn infant. We know people want their characters to get happy endings, but this is about as believable as Hannah becoming god empress of Mars because the head of NASA liked one of her tweets.
In real life, random goobers have a precisely zero percent chance of being given a steady gig teaching college. Becoming a professor is a difficult and costly process. Almost every position in academia goes to PhD graduates who have spent their entire education desperately trying to make sure they'd never have to look for a job in the real world. And if their discipline is in the humanities (as it is with writer Hannah and architect Ted), even a doctorate only gives these nerds about a 50/50 chance of landing a job in academia.
But even taking into account sitcom characters' leprechaun levels of luck, wanting to get into teaching college isn't that good of a career move. Starting professors make little over poverty wages, get no health benefits, and their job longevity is worse than that of a Bond villain. There's no stumbling into that bad a deal; you have to be really committed to not wanting to become a Starbucks barista.
Isaac is still way too proud of his college degree. Follow him on Twitter.
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