Blogpost: Does Media Play a Role in Shaping a College-Going Culture?

By Amy Puffenberger
Man Watching TV So often, our perceptions of reality and the world that surrounds us, our very culture, is formed and influenced by the messages we see in the media.  Some may argue that these messages are harmful, others helpful, some educational, but most often so many messages are, at the very least, impactful.  Media may very well affect the things we purchase, the stores we shop at, the news we pay attention to, the trends we seek to follow— but can it shape a college-going culture?

First, we have to define two very important phrases here: media and college-going culture.  I’m always a fan of using a very standard, basic definition of media. So, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition, media would be defined as:

: a means of effecting or conveying something: as a (1) : a substance regarded as the means of transmission of a force or effect (2) : a surrounding or enveloping substance (3) : the tenuous material (as gas and dust) in space that exists outside large agglomerations of matter (as stars) <interstellar medium> b plural usually media (1) : a channel or system of communication, information, or entertainment — compare MASS MEDIUM (2) : a publication or broadcast that carries advertising (3) : a mode of artistic expression or communication (4) : something (as a magnetic disk) on which information may be stored

At the National Forum, we have worked for many years to try and define what a college-going culture actually means.  Although significant research has been written on this subject, we can broadly and succinctly say that a college-going culture is:

The aspiration of children and families to get a college degree and the presence of the institutional, societal, and environmental support systems necessary to achieve it.

With these definitions in mind, can media play a role in shaping college-going culture?  Though this question is yet to be empirically answered, I would argue from the surface level that media does, in fact, play a role in shaping college-going culture.

First, we must look only to the messages that media sends about societal norms.  We can look to these messages in episodic television and movies, to name a few.  So often, we see that the characters in these mediums attend college, are college-educated, have attempted some college, or are thinking about college.  When we consider that episodic television series’, for instance, are intended to mirror a portion of our society, I would argue that the viewer of these shows sees the college-going culture as a societal norm, which in turn pushes them to believe that a higher education is important in their life as well.

Secondly, let us consider the many advertisements for colleges and universities on television, the Internet, and on radio.  These forms of media present an interesting messaging structure, where so much of the advertisements are for what I would consider to be non-traditional higher education in the form of for-profit colleges and institutions.  I suspect that it is highly likely for a viewer to bear witness to an advertisement for a for-profit institution simply given the fiscal and guiding principles of the organization; where education is a goal, but not necessarily the overriding, not-for-profit mission of the institution.  The primary function of these institutions is to make money, that’s why they’re considered for-profit.  To that end, they likely have larger budgets for recruitment and advertising, as this is a primary source of capital for them.  What do these advertisements tell us about college-going culture?

So often, they stress the personal and economic benefits of obtaining a college degree.  “Get an education and make more money” or “Get an education and get a better job.”  They contribute, in one way or another, to the creation of a college-going culture by appealing to the individual by means of appealing to the economic and personal benefits of a higher education.  They tell us in their messaging that getting a higher education degree is in our own best interest, and that we shouldn’t wait to do so.

These are just a two of the many ways that media can influence and help shape a college-going culture, but there’s more work that can and should be done to fully examine these effects.  For example, how do these messages affect student perceptions and expectations of a higher education?  At what age do these messages begin to affect someone: middle school?  High school?  Younger?  Is the message showing up in a particular time slot or event, and is thus targeted to a specific audience?  Should higher education be advertised through mass media at all?

The next time you’re flipping through the channels, or scanning the dial, or on a Pandora commercial break, think about what message it is you’re getting when higher education is advertised. Is it advertised as a social or personal commodity?  Does it stress the benefits (social, economic, personal) benefits of what a higher education can offer?  Does it sell you on the values of a particular institution?  Do you value a higher education more because of your interactions with the media?

Stay tuned.





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