If it had happened once, it would have seemed like an aberration. Some small campus event spreads over Facebook, then broader social media. A local news crew appears, followed by a national program. It appears as if the eyes of the nation are on us, until just as quickly, it fades away. Some other event takes center stage, but ramifications on campus often continue.
This pattern has repeated on campus over my time here as well as at similarly well-known institutions. While we consider campus events relevant to our own lives, it remains surprising and instructive to observe how quickly a story can go viral.
To some degree, this reflects a favorite media hobby: documenting the goings-on of Ivy League schools and their other peer institutions. Bill O’Reilly’s news team would not repeatedly return to campus if his segments were not highly rated. It’s no coincidence that the New York Times’ new Upshot division featured two highly promoted stories involving Ivy League admission in its first few weeks of existence — articles dissecting admissions practices are almost always among the most read and most commented for quite some time. To be fair, the fact that mainstream newsrooms are often staffed by alums of these schools often furthers this focus. In any event, when seemingly small-time campus events receive a national spotlight, that light is surprisingly bright.
Is this scrutiny warranted? Probably not. In my history of higher education class this past semester, we studied how national figures — themselves alums, Presidents and trustees of elite private institutions — were instrumental, for better or worse, in establishing broader higher education policy that created the schools that the vast majority of students attend in this country. Thus, while some highly selective schools receive outsize attention and coverage, they are far from representative of the average college student. As of 2013, roughly 8 million of the 21.8 million U.S. college and university students attend two-year institutions, and only 16 percent of all students attend private, not-for-profit institutions. More than 9 percent of all college students attend California community colleges, but only 0.4 percent of college students go to Ivy League schools.
We have made progress in terms of racial representation to mirror the national population, and we have certainly made great strides in terms of gender, but study after study repeatedly illustrates the vast differential between the median socioeconomic status of a student at a highly selective school compared to the average college student. A controversy going viral at a public university, a community college or even a for-profit school would much better reflect the typical American college experience, yet the same cohort of institutions continues to receive outsize attention and coverage.
We should recognize that our words or campus events may receive disproportionate coverage — ideally, we could do more to highlight goings-on at other schools. We can also all do well to understand and use the power of our microphones, as outsized as they may be. This lesson first became evident as we witnessed mass media attention on our campus, but it is even more important as we enter the outside world. Not all of our actions or writings, of course, will be amplified due to our institution or correlating advantages, but in instances where this does apply, we can understand this power and use it to help those whose voices have been minimized.
As we adjust to the size of our microphones, all we can do is understand this arbitrary advantage and use our voices as best we can.