The #2 movie at the U.S. box office, earning 91.5 million dollars in just two weeks, is Neighbors. It’s an empty, thoughtless glance at the transition from youth into adulthood, between being carefree (read: a frat boy) and weighted down with responsibilities (read: a parent). But in creating tension between some supposedly quintessential youth experience (partying at college) and the supposedly quintessential adult experiences (9–5 employment, home ownership, and parenthood), the film glorifies the dead-end and increasingly implausible college-to-job-to-marriage-to-homeowner-to-family pipeline better than any conservative political speech.
Of course, the film isn’t concerned with why people might actually be wary of traveling along this line. Instead, its characters, including some of the fraternity brothers, are unquestioningly, impatiently anxious about getting on it and maintaining their place within it.
Neighbors is as much about the role of college within this terrible trajectory as it is about the job and home and family where it is all supposed to lead. It’s telling, then, that the university the fraternity brothers attend (or where the movie is set at all) never becomes clear. We are given a generic depiction of college life that includes no actual college. No classrooms, no professors, no assignments, no campus, no thinking. Aside from scenes where some brothers are being disciplined in an administrator’s office, there is only one brief moment set within what appears to be a campus: some kind of a job fair, which allows for some product placement for AT&T and not much else. College, then, is a generic stand-in, a placeholder signifying one stop along the pathway to adulthood.
Like AT&T, colleges are valuable businesses and brands. Branding — the process of creating perceived value out of thin air — is important for business. As more and more people are questioning the value of a college education, branding is becoming increasingly important for universities. As a result, universities are working hard to brand themselves and to attract students (often conceptualized by administrators and faculty alike as customers). For example, according to one vice president of governmental relations and university communications, the University offers “a unique brand of smart that you can only get at [our university].”
In this competition, where universities seek to justify themselves within the larger marketplace and to distinguish themselves from one another, one brand is, I think, doing it best. The University of Phoenix’s current ad campaign, viewable here, knows that for many, a college education holds no value in and of itself. Rather, it is one bothersome stop on the way to some place that is supposed to be better: a steady job. These commercials proudly eschew traditional aspects of college — “the freshman 15 isn’t really a thing here” — and show, literally, a campus hallway turning into an office space, a student walking from the commencement stage directly to his desk chair. Drawing on nepotism and the fact that they work with major corporations to shape their curriculum, the University of Phoenix is marketing your ability to market yourself, and so defining the college experience as something that is no longer about youth and exploration, but about responsibly, proactively setting yourself up for maximum employability.
Neighbors and the University of Phoenix’s ad campaign reflect what are often thought of as two opposing views of higher education. In the world of Neighbors, higher education is about youth and exploration, where students are allowed to temporarily experience freedom in thought and action; in the ad spots for UP, higher education is for working adults — it’s a corporate-influenced, quick ticket allowing grown-ups to be seen as viable human capital. But all universities operate like businesses — working to brand themselves, exploiting students and faculty alike — so we can see that these views aren’t so different. Both roads lead to the same destination, so maybe these competitors make good neighbors after all.