A truer picture of today’s college students

Images of college students—on screens and in print—typically feature one type of learner: the 18- to 22-year-old living on campus at a four-year institution. But less than two in 10 students even live in campus dorms, and today’s collegiate population is older and more diverse than ever. 

A new collaboration between the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation and Getty Images is working to close that gap between perception and reality, by infusing Getty’s vast photo and video archive with images that capture the varied nature of students’ college experience. 

“These images send a message about who counts and who doesn’t, about what’s weird and what’s usual,” Michael Morgan, a professor emeritus of communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “If people never see anybody who looks like themselves, it can cause them to believe that they don’t belong to that world, that that world is for other people. It can lower their aspirations, lower their self-esteem.”

Enabling more students to ‘see’ themselves in college

In May, the New College Majority Photo Series released the first of five photo installments—217 images showing the experience of mothers enrolled in college. One in 10 college students is a single mother, and more than one-fifth of all undergraduates are raising children. 

“These hundreds of new images of mothers in college illustrate a set of experiences currently shared by 3.8 million postsecondary students,” said Abigail Seldin, CEO of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation. “Strong visuals depicting the reality and resilience of today’s student mothers can help create conditions of accessibility, on campus and in our communities.” 

The new photos struck a chord with women who had navigated college while parenting; the foundation shared some of their sentiments along with the images. These photos “reminded me of the five years I spent as a student parent feeling very much out of place as a first-generation college student and a mother, but also the hope I felt that, with my education, I could change the future for myself and my children,” said Monique Rizer, executive director of Urban Alliance DC. 

Last month, Getty added another round of photos called “College & Covid,” which features 500 stock images showing students’ postsecondary experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. The collection also seeks to increase representation of students with disabilities, who make up one-fifth of the college population.

Paving the way for more inclusive policy design

Foundation and Getty officials hope the photo series also spurs lawmakers and higher education leaders to consider the whole spectrum of college experiences as they set policy. “Part of the reason for the disconnect between policy design and the student experience is because we as a field have not been adequately communicating the diversity of that experience,” Seldin said. 

Some of the photos, The Chronicle notes, capture students grappling with basic needs insecurity. One shows a woman studying in the back seat of a car alongside her blanket and pillow. Another depicts a student sitting on the ground outside a college building to access campus internet.  

Shontise McKinney, a 25-year-old who is attending the University of the District of Columbia while raising two children on her own, says she hopes that highlighting those kinds of challenges will help show the need for resources like scholarships, campus child care, and mental health services. “When laws and policies are put in place, when decisions are made about students, there needs to be a clear picture of who it affects,” she said.

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