It’s perhaps the most ubiquitous issue facing higher education — college affordability. It’s a problem that everyone tries to tackle, a many-faceted beast that everyone from nonprofits to politicians have latched on to. And now Hollywood has gotten involved.
Perhaps this was overlooked in the trailer for The House, the new comedy from Saturday Night Live alumni Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler because of their antics, but it’s one of the first films to even reference the difficulty of paying for college.
And in a tangential way, perhaps the film does center on it, but really it serves as a setup for the utter outlandishness that is hosting a casino in the living room of your home.
Here’s the plot, in broad strokes: Ferrell and Poehler’s daughter is accepted to Bucknell University. The family is relying on a full scholarship from their town to send their daughter to the university. But in the scene where a corrupt councilman tells them that the financial well has run dry, their response is literally just to gape and stare.
Though the characteristic shenanigans of Ferrell and Poehler remain at play here, it’s perhaps a bit startling to the viewer that this clearly upper-middle-class family, who are able to throw their daughter a relatively slick graduation party and live in a house that would feel correct in a prosperous suburb, have not developed any sort of backup plan to pay for college.
Facing disappointing their only daughter, they buy into a scheme with Ferrell’s best friend — a recently separated gambling addict — to open a casino in their home.
“The house always wins” is the theme here — the family can collect enough money for four years of tuition, and the best friend can rake in the dollars that will entice his wife to return.
The specter of a momentous tuition bill doesn’t really hang heavy here — the moment where the parents first receive Bucknell’s bill does prompt some light chuckles when Ferrell confuses $50,000 for $50 million, but there’s no real sense of pressure or motivation.
Which makes it all the more odd that the couple goes to such deep lengths when the casino finally does open for business — including sponsoring a fight club of sorts for their repressed neighbors and literally chopping off someone’s finger.
This topic doesn’t appear in most films and television series, as Barbara Tobolowsky, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at University of Texas at Arlington pointed out. Tobolowsky, with Pauline J. Reynolds, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Redlands, edited a book about fictional portrayals of higher education. It’s called Anti-Intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities: Fictional Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan).
Felicity, the television show from the ’90s that featured a young woman at a university in New York, was unique in that it did feature students doing work-study and talking about aid, Tobolowsky said, but that was an exception.
“Only two options remain,” Tobolowsky wrote in an email about The House. “Tell their child she can’t attend the college of her/their dreams, or commit a crime. They choose crime.”
Reynolds identified a couple of gendered tropes about students struggling financially — men protagonists do generally turn to gambling, like in the 2008 drama 21, and women engage in some sort of sex work.
“I think that what’s interesting about this trailer, is that it is suggest the movie ridicules privilege related to college going,” Reynolds wrote in an email.
Reynolds didn’t watch beyond the trailer, because the movie was just released Friday, but she introduces what could have been a great plot point.
Even for families in a higher income bracket, attending some of the more expensive colleges can present a challenge. Aid packages at the priciest institutions are designed to assist more impoverished families, leaving those in the middle — even the upper middle — with few options for institutional help.
A small reference to the family being too rich to receive assistance, but top poor to pay out of pocket could have improved the complexity of the film in a way that highlights the nuances of college affordability.
Instead, it depends on some blood, fire, flashing lights and obvious slapstick to draw you in to what could have been built on more legitimate problems.
Where’s the sorrow? I can see Will Ferrell make funny expressions anytime.