What Lady Bird Gets Right about College in America

By Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein

Greta Gerwig’s sensational new coming-of-age film, Lady Bird, has received deserved critical acclaim for its depiction of the relationships and pressures faced by the title character as she struggles through Catholic high school and on to college. In addition to being a tour de force of family and peer dynamics, it is also a powerful allegory about American higher education and echoes many of the themes in our forthcoming book, Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership Between America and its Colleges and Universities. (Significant spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the movie.)

Lady Bird’s family is in difficult financial straits to begin with and her Dad loses his job halfway through the film. Nevertheless, her family makes significant sacrifices to further her education by sending her to Catholic school where her classmates are much wealthier than she. The plan is for Lady Bird to attend a near-by school, UC-Davis, which is near her hometown of Sacramento. But Lady Bird has other plans, and this is where the lessons begin.

Lady Bird is a “Hoxby kid.”  Caroline Hoxby, a well-known Stanford economist, has discovered there are large numbers of highly qualified, low-income high school seniors who are not even applying to the best college they are qualified to attend. In fact, Hoxby determined there is up to one high-achieving low-income student for every two high-achieving, high-income students. Hoxby refers to these students as the “missing one-offs,” because each has their own story as to why they aren’t fully accessing the system. In Lady Bird’s case, she tells her college counselor that she wants to go to a “liberal arts school like Yale”. Her counselor laughs at first but a little digging reveals Lady Bird has an astonishingly high SAT score. The counselor tells her she might have a shot at a selective eastern school but all of the interview slots have already been assigned to better prepared (and wealthier) students. This experience is not surprising: affluent students get better counseling and more encouragement to apply to top schools, even when their scores are no different or even worse than their low-income peers.

Without financial aid, Lady Bird’s dream is not possible. Lady Bird is admitted from the waiting list to a school in New York, not Columbia but possibly Sarah Lawrence, Fordham, or NYU. Lady Bird gets a scholarship, but it is not enough to cover her expenses and her Dad takes out a second mortgage, scraping together what it will take for Lady Bird to attend her dream school. Getting even this far is a huge financial stretch and it is a stark reminder of why colleges have such an important obligation to help both low-income and middle-class families with financial aid.

Getting in is not enough, Lady Bird must graduate. Lady Bird puts a human face on why it is so important to make sure students graduate, especially those with significant debt. As she arrives in college in New York, it is palpable how important it is for her to get her degree after the sacrifices her family has made. If she were to go back to Sacramento with no degree and a mountain of debt, the data suggest she and her family would be worse off than if she had not attended college at all. The kind of school she attends probably has a 70-80% graduation rate, which is excellent, but even a 20-30% chance of not making it seems unacceptably high.

When she graduates, Lady Bird needs a good job. It is sometimes heard from university faculty that the goal of college education should not be a good job, that college is to develop a worldview and a life of engaged citizenship and continuous learning. Lady Bird provides a strong counterpoint to this view – she definitely comes to New York looking for all of the important aspects of a liberal arts education, but it is clear she needs more. Even if she gets her degree, it would be devastating if she doesn’t need to get a good job when she graduates. In an altercation with her mother earlier in the film, she vows to get a job after college that will allow her to pay back her family for all they spent on raising her. To further the point, in a side plot, her brother is working in a grocery store after graduating from Berkeley (he later gets a good job in a tech company). It’s hard not to leave the film without hoping that Lady Bird went to the career services office as early as possible in her college career.

Lady Bird is much like the students we encounter every day. Those of us who work in higher education smile at the thought of Lady Bird bringing her life story to our college. Unlike the public at large, we know many students just like her and have seen her struggles. In a plot element all too recognizable to any college administrator, Lady Bird drinks too much on her first night at college and ends up in the emergency room of a busy New York hospital while her hard-partying but more experienced classmates escape such a fate.

Lady Bird quickly recovers, ready to take on the world and determined not to fail. We left the theatre reminded of how important it is that American higher education continue to live up to our end of the bargain.

Holden Thorp is the provost of Washington University in St. Louis and Buck Goldstein is the University Entrepreneur-in-Residence at UNC-Chapel Hill. Their book is forthcoming from UNC Press in Fall 2018.

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