If you’ve ever read an article about the the value of a liberal arts education or the role of technology in a university classroom, then you’ve encountered a wild College Think Piece. Equal parts concerned and controversial, these pieces occasionally earn small-scale notoriety on social media. On the whole, they’re fairly inoffensive–but for someone new to the college process, I can also see how they would be absolutely overwhelming.
Having spent the last few years reading these articles with an increasingly skeptical eye, I’ve learned to take them with a grain of salt. With a little help from basic chemistry and cheesy acronyms, it’s easy to conjure up that grain of NaCl necessary to evaluate a few thousand words of hand-wringing about the modern college experience.
Not the Same
It’s a lame start to an acrostic, but an important point: there is a whole spectrum of options when it comes to postsecondary education. Think about all the differences between a huge state school and a tiny liberal arts school, to name just two familiar categories. How can anyone manage to draw sweeping conclusions that are relevant to all of them?
And then even within a given school, individual college experiences can vary wildly. We’ve written before that college is what you make of it, and no amount of sermonizing from a virtual soapbox can affect what you will encounter at any given school. Sure, data and trends are important in the aggregate, but that’s by no means a guarantee of what you’ll encounter in your experience.
I think it’s also telling to reflect on a news outlet’s audience when you’re evaluating these sorts of think pieces. Let me pick on The New York Times for a second: who do you think make up the majority of the Times‘s readers? If you answered young, liberal-leaning, affluent, well-educated people, you would be right!
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this demographic tends to care most about schools that belong to (or fall just short of) a certain botanical league. At the risk of drawing unfair conclusions, it would make sense that a news outlet that caters to a certain audience would only focus on certain schools that audience found important. So even supposing that the trends in NYT think pieces are representative (and not just based on a few cherry-picked examples), they might only reflect the reality of a small group of colleges because that’s what the audience knows and cares about.
If you feel concerned or scared or even outraged by the time you’ve finished reading think pieces, then the authors have done their job. If an author can conjure up strong emotions in a reader, then that reader is more likely to respond to the article in some way. Whether it’s done positively or negatively, commenting on or sharing an article drives more traffic to that article’s website. More traffic means more views, which means more ad revenue. It’s a win-win situation for both the author and the media outlet.
To be clear, I’m not saying that all think pieces are shameless attempts to seek attention. But having a cynical voice at the back of your mind can be a nice counter to these think pieces’ more alarmist moments–and a gentle reminder that the truth may be taking a backseat to sensationalism.
Limitations of Life Experiences
Although think pieces can come from any corner of the web, the most popular tend to come from the more respectable quarters. Writers and journalists in these quarters tend to be fairly well-educated, which means they probably had similar educations. Authors write what they know–so it’s no surprise that think pieces might be focusing on the most competitive schools.
Similarly, if the authors of think pieces are established journalists or writers, then that means they are at least a few years out of school. At that point, nostalgia can creep into college memories, subtly coloring how the authors might remember their experiences. And comparing the present with these Good Old Days, it’s easy to conclude that something must be going wrong with students these days, or professors these days, or colleges these days. But of course, it’s not that easy to compare the present with the past–even putting aside the issue of imperfect recollection, there are dozens of changing socioeconomic factors that are also at play.
Next time you read a think piece, try to take them with a grain of your newfound NaCl. Does the article account for the sheer diversity of college experiences? How might its audience influence its content? Is there motivation for exaggeration? And finally, how might the author’s limited experiences contribute to his or her conclusions?
As long as you approach them with the proper mindset, think pieces about college don’t have to be overwhelming.