What Pitch Perfect 2 Says About College

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3I found myself watching Pitch Perfect 2 last night while ironing. I’m not embarrassed — those shirts wouldn’t de-wrinkle themselves.

Most of the time, I’m in a world where student affairs is an accepted norm. Several of my local friends are higher ed professionals, many of my more distant friends are student affairs pros. After a while, I stopped noticing how my perspective on higher education might not line up with society’s view.

Often times, what we see in movies or on TV is clearly an adjustment with television in mind. Remember Saved by the Bell, the College Years? Nobody lives in a space that large their first year in college. How about the entire National Lampoon’s Animal House movie? Sure, there are elements of a “typical” college experience in there, but for the most part, it’s a parody. Most viewers know these examples are not what college looks like today; that some adjustments were made to make the show more viewable, or more humorous.

Then I saw Pitch Perfect 2. Yes, it’s a comedy, and many scenes fall into the pattern of “we’re stretching reality quite a bit here, but doing it in the name of comedy!” But the movie made some, more subtle hints about how we view higher education. Consider these examples.

The Welcome to College scene. Early on in the movie, the main character attends a commencement event in a large lecture hall. The type of event designed for new students that happens right as a semester is beginning. In this scene, one administrator is the host, bringing different student groups out to perform. The scene resembles a high school pep rally for a homecoming football game. Where were the common themes of you will be challenged! or expand your horizons!? Nowhere. The implication was that the students in the audience were in a new environment with a specific image of what’s expected of them — that they join an a cappella group. Success means conforming to the expectations of the college. The growth those students can expect has a very narrow definition.

The Student Affairs Discipline scene. In this scene, Anna Kendrick’s a cappella group met with a Student Affairs dean and the announcers from an a capella competition after a wardrobe malfunction on a nationally televised event. The role of the announcers is a bit unclear, let’s consider them representatives from the a capella league. The Dean of Student Affairs in this scene acts as a strict disciplinarian. The group members walk into his office and stand there while he tells them of their punishment. The members have little opportunity to talk — their fate has already been decided.

These scenes reminded me that in many ways, institutions are viewed as gatekeepers of your future. If you get in, you’ll succeed. If you can keep up with the rigor, you’ve made it. Your success depends on whether you do what they ask of you. Of course, we view the experience as a mutual effort — the institutions provide opportunities to grow, the students choose  the opportunities in which to engage (and the extent to which they engage).

It’s movies like this that remind me why students are so focused on high exam scores, and the “right” set of extra-curriculars. Between the movies and the countless articles on top money-earning majors (etc.), college seems much more a place where you collect merit badges than a place of growth. I got this badge because I attended [insert prestigious institution] University, and this badge because I got that minor in ______. This one for the dean’s list. Oh, and I got this one as captain of the _____ club.

This view of the working world completely ignores the idea that students can craft their own future from their values and the talents they develop; and bases itself on an environment where their future employers hold all the cards and need to be impressed if they have any hopes of a job.

Somehow, I’ve meandered from the view that high school students have of college to career preparation. I suppose my point here is that there is a misalignment between how we (higher ed professionals) view the role/purpose of college, and how the general public views college — and that the difference severely impedes a students’ ability to get the full value out of college.

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