Times Challenges Students To Discuss Changing Face of College

Essay contest winner will have piece published in Magazine’s special college issue

Colleges have lost their distinctiveness from the rest of society, and as a result, the students of today are missing out on what the histories and reputations of those institutions would seem to promise to their applicants.

So says Rick Perlstein’s “What’s the Matter With College?”—a piece set to appear in an upcoming special college issue of The New York Times Magazine, and the prompt for an essay contest held in conjunction with mtvU, the television network’s college-oriented channel.

The contest will culminate in its winner’s entry appearing in the pages of the special Sept. 30 College issue of The New York Times Magazine.

“The contest was one idea we had for engaging college students in the special issue,” Times Magazine Deputy Editor Jim Schachter wrote in an e-mail. “It seems to have struck a chord.”

Perlstein’s words point to a collegiate environment, and world at large, that he says has undergone tremendous change since his 1992 graduation from the University of Chicago.

“The idea that you almost forget about the world you came from, and the job market you’re about to enter...that [college is] a period of self-exploration, and intellectual discovery, has faded,” Perlstein said in an interview.

But he does not pin the transformation on those currently enrolled; rather, on the external forces they are forced to adapt to: the rise of an “internship culture” where students engage in an “arms race” to add more and more lines to their resumes, and a United States under the Bush administration where he said citizens—collegiates being no exception—face a heightened sense of financial uncertainty.

“It used to be the case that Pell Grants covered 75 percent of the average tuition, and now it covers a third,” Perlstein said. “People are suffering a great deal more economic anxiety in this ‘you’re all on your own’ political culture.” It only follows that students would be less inclined to take the risks and make the less vocationally-concerned choices that previous generations were apt to.

As Perlstein put it, “It’s a lot harder to get into and stay in the middle class nowadays.”

But mtvU General Manager Stephen K. Friedman said that in his experience, though the undergraduate population Perlman writes of today may be in many ways different than that of the past, it is no less passionate, and he expects the words of the contestants to argue in support of that notion.

“I think you’re going to have people that were inspired by their college experience, inspired by their activism,” Friedman said.

Though Perlstein’s piece points to the college experience’s slide toward the vocational as a primary agent in its downfall, both the Times and mtvU acknowledged—perhaps ironically—that entrants may rightfully view the contest as a chance to propel their post-graduate aspirations.

“I think a student that wins is going to have their profile raised if they want to be a journalist, an essayist, a writer,” Friedman said. “Whether they want to be a columnist one day like a Kristof or a Friedman—they have an opportunity to try it out on a large scale nationally,” he said, referring to prominent Times columnists Nicholas D. Kristof ’82 and Thomas L. Friedman, respectively.

“I suspect that the motivation [for entrants] will be intellectual—people really have strong feelings on the subject,” Schachter wrote, “and a little careerist—wouldn’t it be great to get a piece published in The New York Times Magazine as an undergrad?”

Asked what he would say to those that may view the contest as an “audition” for the Times, his response read simply: “Bring it on.”

Casey Parks, winner of a 2006 joint Times and mtvU contest that saw her secure a coveted spot with Kristof as he reported from Africa, said that while the opportunity certainly helped her along in her quest for a career in journalism—she now writes for The Oregonian in Portland—her remaining ties to the Times should not be overstated.

“I talk to Nick Kristof, every two weeks or so,” she said, “but it’s not like [Times editorial page editor] Andy Rosenthal calls me up or anything like that.”

Submissions to the Times’ college essay contest are due August 6 and limited to 1,200 words in length. In addition to the grand prize winner, five semifinalists will have their essays published on the Magazine’s Web site.

—Staff writer Nicholas A. Ciani can be reached at nciani@fas.harvard.edu.