Joe and Jane Go To College: 6 The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that for America’s economic, social, and
political elite, the reality of college is, in fact, much closer to the “traditional”
Today’s college student is not who you think picture. Students from upper-income families or from families where one or both
parents have a college degree are much more likely to be among the 10 percent or
by Thomas R. Wolanin fewer of students who attend selective colleges, rely on parental support, attend
Thomas R. Wolanin is a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy and college right after high school, attend full-time, work part-time or not at all, are
former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education. This commentary was unmarried without dependents, attend a four-year college and live on campus.
written for Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service and appeared in The San Diego Union 7 Eight of America’s last nine presidents fit the “traditional” profile of college
Tribune, October 26, 2003, G6-8.
attendance. The exception is Lyndon Johnson, who worked his way through a
1 Students fretting over SAT exams. College tours with the family. Students non-selective state college. Indeed, six of the last nine presidents (Kennedy,
nervously waiting for letters of acceptance or rejection and facing an agonizing Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush) were full-
choice about which college to attend. Shopping and packing up for dorm time students living on campus at a private four-year college, an experience
living away from home. shared by only 7 percent of current undergraduate students.
2 These images are the annual staples of newspaper and television reporting 8 By income and social status, newspaper editors and television producers are
about students heading for college. They reflect an assumption about the certainly among America’s elite. They are providing the public with a
“typical” college student: one who receives support from his or her family to distorted picture of American higher education because they are writing and
pay for college, attends a competitive or selective college, is planning to attend broadcasting about what they know best and what they assume to be typical,
college full time and directly after high school and goes away from home to namely their own experience and the experience of their children. Or, if it was
live on a college campus. not their personal experience and their children are not yet of college age, it is
the gold standard that they wish their college experience had been and what
3 However, this image is no more typical than the old movies portraying they aspire to for their children.
students with raccoon-skin coats and hip flasks waving pennants and riding in
a Stutz Bearcat. The reality of students in American higher education is quite 9 The faulty portrayal of higher education by the mass media would be little worth
different. noting if it did not have some serious and unfortunate public consequences.
4 Slightly more than half of undergraduate students do not rely on their parents 10 For example, the distorted picture probably significantly contributes to the
for support. Seventy-five percent of undergraduate students are American public overestimating the cost of higher education in national
nontraditional, meaning that they have one or more of the following surveys. When most of what low-and moderate-income families, in particular,
characteristics: not a high school graduate, not enrolled in higher education read and see is reports of the tuitions in excess of $30,000 at elite, selective
directly after high school, attending part-time, working full-time, financially colleges, they conclude that this is the norm. This perception becomes an
independent of their family, married or have their own dependents. additional barrier discouraging these families’ children from feeling that
higher education is possible for them.
5 Conversely, the traditional image of a college student, in fact, only describes 25
percent of undergraduate students – those who enroll in college directly after 11 Another example is affirmative action, which is largely an issue about
high school, are attending full-time, are working part-time or not at all, are admissions to the selective colleges enrolling about 5 percent of the students.
financially dependent on their parents and are unmarried without dependents. An extra boost in admissions is irrelevant if there is no competition. Yet, the
Further, only about 10 percent of undergraduate students have the mass media image featuring selective colleges as typical implies that
characteristics of traditional students and also attend a a four-year college or restrictions on affirmative action would narrow higher education opportunities
university and live on campus. If we further narrow our focus to traditional for minorities at all institutions, not just at the small, albeit important, group of
students who live on campus at a private college or university, we are talking selective colleges and universities. Thus, when federal courts or states restrict
about 7 percent of undergraduates. Finally, of the approximately 2,100 four- affirmative action, it has a significant ripple effect in discouraging minority
year colleges and universities, only about 150 of them are selective, meaning enrollments in all of higher education, not just at the selective colleges.
that they accept less than half of those who apply. These selective four-year 12 Newspaper editors and television producers need to stop looking in the mirror
colleges and universities enroll about 5 percent of undergraduates. To when they think about the typical college student experience. They are
analysts, scholars, and researchers interested in the current state of American currently misinforming the public and making access to college appear much
higher education, these facts are commonplace, unexceptional and well- more difficult to attain than it, in fact, is.
known. How is it, then, that they seem to have escaped the attention of
America’s mass media? FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY