The Onion, like many national media outlets, has beefed up its higher-education coverage in recent years. In past decades the satirical news website’s coverage leaned on jokes about hard-partying frat bros and absent-minded professors. But in recent years its writers have applied their wit to contemporary campus issues like sexual assault, adjunct labor, and free community college.
That might not seem like a very important development, since The Onion makes up its stories. But recent research has challenged the idea that people who work on college campuses are humorless eggheads. For them, and for us, The Onion’s take on modern college life provides a welcome relief from the staid (but invaluable!) coverage provided by the trade press.
The best satire, of course, contains a kernel of truth. With that in mind, and in no particular order, here are the 13 best Onion stories about higher education.
Stories about racial epithets’ being hurled at students of color are made even more frustrating by the fact that rooting out campus racism — whether implicit or explicit — is such a daunting task. Studies suggest that diversity training doesn’t change people’s hearts, and requiring students to take courses on race and ethnicity can be hard to do, politically and practically. (The University of Iowa once defined the requirement so broadly as to include a course on table tennis.) In their darker moments, some advocates of racial justice have surely wished that they could simply beat inclusion into people with paddles.
Most colleges built their clock towers years ago, so the joke about how most tuition revenue goes to pay for “a big tall clock that goes ‘ding’ ” might not ring true — unless you’re familiar with the challenges some institutions face in keeping their antique buildings standing. Indeed, the cost of deferred maintenance can spark financial crises. The Onion’s fake tuition breakdown also includes a zinger about how much colleges spend on fees for speakers and entertainers.
Apart from being a social lubricant, alcohol serves as fuel for alcohol poisoning, sexual assault, violence, mayhem … not to mention regrettable emails to professors. And yet, despite all the research studies, educational interventions, and administrative rebukes, students continue to get wasted and break things. Why? Because getting drunk is fun! Especially when you’re 18 and away from home for the first time.
That’s what colleges are up against: the promise of fun. “What we know about students,” said Liz Prince, an alcohol educator at the University of Georgia, in a 2014 interview with The Chronicle, “is that telling them ‘Bad, bad, bad, don’t do it, it’s wrong’ just doesn’t work.”
The college-admissions drama is told mostly through the eyes of applicants and their parents, who calculate the odds and tag some institutions with the unflattering designation of “safety school.” Few may realize that admissions officers regularly make similar calculations, taking care to admit students who are less likely to turn them down in favor of a better college.
Most administrators would surely object to thinking so cynically about sexual-assault victims. Nevertheless, recent reports on how colleges have handled such incidents reveal the procedural flaws that caused them to botch a lot of cases — flaws that many of them did not try to fix until the U.S. Education Department pledged to crack down on bad actors.
If only groundbreaking research could make you as rich as a dumb-luck Powerball ticket. But no: Researchers have to scrap for grants from a shrinking pool of federal research money. Perhaps more academics should take the brainpower they spend writing grant proposals and use it to figure out how to win the lottery.
The climbing wall may be the leading trope of the campus-amenities arms race, but the generic “media center” might be a better example of what colleges tout as they update their libraries and academic buildings for the digital age. The Onion plays it straight, quoting ribbon-cutting boilerplate and noting in passing that this is the eighth such center to open on the campus in as many months.
This article pretty much sums up why “inclusion” has supplanted “diversity” as the goal of efforts to make campuses more welcoming to minority students. The fictional (white) administrators here admit a student with an atypical background and then obsess over getting as much mileage as possible out of his visible differences — or else. Students and professors of color often try to remind their colleagues that a token approach to diversity does little to change prevailing racial attitudes on the campus.
The increased use of part-time instructors is a big story in higher education. So, too, is their relatively low pay and brushes with poverty. Adjuncts and their champions have struggled to get outsiders to notice their plight. They can count this shout-out from The Onion, which has also written about class tensions between high-school students and their underpaid teachers, as a small victory.
Colleges shell out tons of money to attract big names to a commencement gig. Some institutions might see their investments rewarded by a speaker whose words of wisdom later will be canonized in The New York Times. Sometimes the speaker will make a different kind of memory by confusing your college with one of the same name. But more often, the graduation speech will be the rhetorical equivalent of canned yams. (Mr. Gilmore did give UVa’s 1998 speech. He gave a rundown of his CV, waxed poetic about the Rotunda, showed love to the College Republicans, and quoted Thomas Jefferson … zzzzzzzz.)
Onion headlines often serve as punch lines, but this article, from 2004, makes the list on the strength of its core, which transposes fraternity hijinks to the idea of an online campus — which was still, at that point, a relatively new concept:
In 2002, several Alpha Sigma Sigma members were arrested for purchasing alcohol from Wine.com with falsified driver’s licenses and credit-card numbers. Then, in the spring of 2003, fraternity members hacked into the website of rival University of Phoenix Online, erased its mascot, and placed a downloaded version on their own website. Although no one was ever charged with the theft of the copyrighted clip art, the online fraternity was warned that further misbehavior would result in serious disciplinary action.
Online institutions actually do worry about how to cultivate strong social ties among students in a way that fraternities long have done on physical campuses. The web makes it easier to complete degrees, but not to make memories.
“Teaching students how to think” is an important goal of college, even if it’s not always clear what that means. It probably has to do with “associative thinking”: identifying patterns across different historical events, scientific phenomena, or human behavior. (It also probably has to do with learning how to properly scrutinize specious associations, such as those that a politician might make between a rival’s ideas and those of the Nazis.) In any case, the tendency of academics to see parallels between things and other things can be exhausting, even if it’s a valuable instinct.
Is college worth it? The question is raised so often that it has become parody-worthy. Enter Clickhole, The Onion’s webby spinoff, which helpfully underlines the human element so often left out of correlative analyses between attendance and earnings. Now shield your eyes.
Author Bio: Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age.