Pretty much everyone who knows me knows that I am a fan of how pop culture portrays college life and the politics of campus. And there is no shortage of media which focuses on college and how it is presented to the world. Today’s blog post will focus on this very interesting and wide subject. Please note, this is a massive universe so there is zero chance I will get to every show or television angle.
But let’s start at the beginning for me. The first time I was made aware of college life on TV was the show Family Ties and my personal hero Alex P. Keaton played by Michael J. Fox working to get into college and his years at college during the show. I feel like Alex was my college gateway drug. From then on, I wanted to go to college. So, when the girls from the Facts of Life went to college, I followed them too. And then game changer in the 1980s. When Denise Huxtable, played by Lisa Bonet went off to fictional Hillman College. This show hit at just the moment I too was getting ready to go to college.
A Different World showed college from the perspective of an HBCU, but it was the first time I got to see what it must be like to live in a dorm and go to class and while I think I knew it was an exaggeration of college life it did level set. The 1990s and 2000s have been a good time for college material. From Beverly Hills 90210 the college years to shows like Greek and Grown(ish) the college television show has evolved, become more diverse, and takes on several topics. More on that later.
The other side of college life is in how media portrays college life, from the television news to M-TVs Spring Break to college athletics on ESPN these artifacts of pop culture help shape how college is perceived. And in many cases, they perpetuate certain assumptions about college that is hard to combat. For example, there is a sense that college football and basketball generate millions for their universities and thus is a reason to invest millions into the programs. But the reality is year after year only around 20 athletic programs generate a profit for their universities and only about 50 breaks even. That is out of over 1,000 NCAA athletic programs. But when you see Nick Saban’s salary or someone like Zion Williamson getting a big time NBA contract it is easy to forget that most coaches are well paid but not millionaires and only about 1% of college athletes ever get a shot at professional play. But ESPN will make you believe it is commonplace.
The same with news segments. News and media will portray college life as one of two lifelines – unbridled party culture that is mainly fueled by Greek life or a crushing experience where students learn little, pay too much, and work too hard. There is no market for the average college experience. There are over 20 million college students who attend nearly 5,000 post-secondary colleges in the U.S., but we tend to focus on the lives lived at elite or state flagship colleges. These colleges tend to be populated by traditional aged students who have the time and resources to have a full-send college life. This can create a distorted view where we both overvalue and undervalue the college experience and create confusion.
And this brings us to college life television series. Shows like Gilmore Girls, Greek, Grown(ish) and 90210 can offer a great outlet to discuss and present many of the realities of college life. From Calvin’s character coming out as a gay man in a traditional fraternity on Greek, to the exploitation college athletes like the experiences of D’Shawn Hardell at fictional California University on Beverly Hills 90210 to Zoey Johnson’s addiction to Adderall on Grown(ish) there are lots of great storylines and opportunity to create narrative. And overall, I think they create these scenarios with care and a desire to do good. But there must be drama, and these college shows do present drama in a way that makes college look amazing and stressful AF!