I went to ask people about how colleges and the public misunderstand each other.
Let’s start with the stereotypes. First, imagine the basic college student. Mainstream media would tell you that my fellow students and I are snowflakes, social justice warriors, and kids whose egos inflated after they went off to school. (As a sophomore at the University of Southern California, I’d say that’s, maybe, 18 percent accurate.)
That question of what a college student looks like was a focus point for an opening panel at the conference. And while panelists agreed stereotypes are often rooted in some truth, they also hoped to show outsiders that their students are thinkers, volunteers, and leaders.
So how can colleges better communicate their message to the public and start to bridge the gap between stereotypes and the real deal? A lot of the people I spoke with gave a similar response: Get out in the community.
Not just fancy advertising campaigns, not just service projects. The key is making community engagement a central part of the curriculum, people said.
F. King Alexander, the departing president of Louisiana State University (and soon-to-be president of Oregon State University), said colleges often misunderstand how place-bound many students are — and therefore don’t focus as much as they should on serving the needs of the public who live just down the road.
So let’s focus, he said, a lot less on worries about “undermatching” and a lot more on whether public institutions are doing enough to help students who live right outside their doors.
Carra Hood, an associate provost at Stockton University, told me it’s important for students, faculty, and administrators to go into the communities they serve because many outsiders find it “intimidating” to walk onto campus, even if they’re invited.