College is a time of unparalleled social opportunity. The memories (and mistakes) we make here will last long after we leave, and in order to build those memories we must also indulge in the occasional keepsake from the University Bookstore.
I understand the appeal of owning an extra Binghamton University sweatshirt for the eternal darkness known as the Upstate winter. And what could be a more fitting tribute to our four, five or seven years of academic excellence than Bearcat “drinkware?” Bottoms up!
So let me be clear: Please do not take the following as an attack, but I must take exception to the college bumper sticker. That’s where I draw the line between school spirit and school status.
When I see someone wearing his school’s apparel, I also see the person behind it. That person has the ability to expand or at least defend his choice. For some, it might just be the quickest step in their morning routine. For others, it could express deep feelings of pride. Whatever the case may be, that clothing symbolizes shared values among the student body and alumni.
These same reasons make bumper stickers deliberately non-interpersonal. It’s a proclamation, not a conversation with drivers on the road. The interaction is minimal — you see the car, associations come to mind, and then it’s gone. Nothing was said about your college experience. What’s left is indistinguishable from the Toyota Camry merging into your lane.
These are one and the same with the common decal, “My son is an honor student at John Doe school.” On the surface, the statement seems to demonstrate an interest in the child, but it is really nothing more than disguised insecurity. Does anyone stuck in midday traffic honestly care about one fifth grader’s spelling quiz?
The college bumper sticker is just another competition for social status, an excuse to publicize the quality of one’s education, whatever that even means. Have you ever heard the expression, “An education pays for itself?” Not if your car becomes a free advertising service. It may be the accepted social norm, but where’s the logic in paying for the sticker when they should be paying you?
Besides, the college ranking system is hardly a standard for objectivity. Most of these guides use overwhelmingly unreliable algorithms, juggling between national and small schools, public and private tuition or liberal arts with polytechnic institutes, while placing selectivity well above affordability or accessibility.
Despite the fact that institutions have diverse, specialized missions and resources, they are still expected to converge into a single comprehensive score.
Even the top editor of U.S. News & World Report — the industry leader in college rankings — agrees that these publications were meant as a reference and not a benchmark for comparison. They are not made by social scientists and are not peer-reviewed, which is ironic considering academia’s institutional abilities are being ignored during research on academia.
Rankings drive reputation like faith drives science. Our perceptions are filled with anecdotes.
Admittedly, I bear the burden of proof. My position is based mostly on principle. But I stand by the notion that merchandising is our conscious decision as everyday consumers. Our impressions are not limited to friends, family and fellow students; we have peripheral effects on the world around us.
If communication reflects character, then these stickers boil the owner down to a brand.