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Kristan Venegas

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The Thursday Pop: The Onion, Institutional Pride, and IHEP’s Financial Aid Recommendations

As a USC faculty member, I receive a daily e-mail with a short list of education-related news. It’s a great service and I make sure to browse through the choices and read a few everyday.

On Monday, January 14, I noticed that there was an article from the Onion. Yes, the Onion. So of course, I clicked on it. There was an article and short video about a fictional graduate of a university in Miami. The narrative for the story explains that even though the student didn’t learn anything, it’s okay because he just experienced the best four years of his life.

Look, I know it’s from the Onion, so it’s all meant as satire, but satire only works if everyone is in on the joke.

It saddens me that there continues to be a universal belief that college is about partying and going to football games. And yes, those are common stereotypes about college life, but those are also things that you can do outside of college just as easily.

College going isn’t really like that, and hasn’t really been like for many students—like low-income students—for a long time (or maybe ever).

I’m critiquing this stereotype that all undergrads do is party and gain little knowledge because we really can’t afford as a country to ignore the large numbers of traditionally and non-traditionally aged students that are getting cut out of going to college if they can’t afford it.

About a week before the Onion article, the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s latest report, “Making Sense of the System: Financial Aid for the 21st-Century Student,” was released. It’s well done and provides an easy-to-understand set of recommendations about reconsidering financial aid planning and spending—definitely worth a review if you care about financial aid.

The plan provides policy-driven opportunities for students, families, and communities to prepare for paying for college. They offer ideas for changes before, during, and after students go to school, through savings plans, changes to Pell Grants and loan policies, and tax breaks during and after school. As I read through the recommendations it reminded me of many local and regional ideas that I have learned about which already exist throughout the country. And doing things with the tax code, like allowing an early redemption of the tax credit for low-income families have a lot of potential.

What I worry about is that is we continue to rely on the idea that college is this relaxed party time in which we learn little about ourselves besides our own alcohol tolerance. We have to change that as an educational community. I mean, if that’s reality on many campuses, then we really have to change the behavior. But I think that we also need to work to change that perception on college and university campuses. It’s to the benefit of our low-income students, and really middle-income students, who need access to financial aid.

Who is going to want to take our need for tuition support seriously if we let them believe that we spend our time with a beer mug in our hands wearing a weather-beaten “Go State” cap? We have to change the punch line of this joke if we want decision makers to continue to be serious about what we do.

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