It’s pure bedlam at Boston College whenever the student union opens for a seasonal touring crafts fair, once just a place for beaded bracelets and Doors posters, but now filled with knockoff designer bags. For junior Jeremy Silverman, that’s the most blatant sign of just how brand-conscious some students have become.
“Girls are clamoring to get into the student union,” he says. “People are so obsessed with getting fake Vuitton bags. In recent years, a lot of people have been exposed to luxury goods and high fashion. In high school, it wasn’t such a big deal.”
B.C.’s crafts fair is hardly indicative of a mass collegiate trend toward mercenary pursuits. Nevertheless, Silverman’s observation offers anecdotal support to recent research indicating that increasing numbers of today’s 15.5 million college students aspire to tony lifestyles. According to UCLA’s American Freshman Survey, the longest-running assessment of student attitudes, conducted annually for 38 years, being “very well off, financially,” was cited as a priority for 74 percent of this year’s respondents — the highest rate in 13 years. And brand-consciousness is part of the picture.
“It’s rare to find someone who wants to learn for the sake of learning,” Silverman says. Consider some of his classmates in “Shop Till You Drop,” a sociology course that takes a critical look at consumer culture. “The class lures in a lot of unsuspecting people. On the first day of class, our professor asked everyone to explain why they wanted to take the class. Some said, ‘I like to shop, so I thought this would be a good class to take.’”
Certainly, some students take more of a long-term approach to course selection, and to the way they conduct themselves in school. “Everyone wants to get the great job, to have all the money, to roll around in the Range Rover or to wear the Louis Vuitton bag,” says Meaghan Mallon, a University of Maryland senior majoring in communications. “Walking around campus, you can see how everyone is brand-conscious.”
Financial advisor Nathan Dungan is author of “Prodigal Sons & Material Girls: How Not To Be Your Child’s ATM.” He maintains that status-driven students can miss out on broad-based college experiences. “This isn’t an oh-by-the-way hunch,” he says. “This is having a significant impact on their creative energy and their ability to launch into adulthood. They think they have to have status for desirable lives.”
But not all students agree. Whitney Beckett, a senior at Duke University, loves fashion but rejects the notion that consumer aspirations are stifling the loftier ideals traditionally associated with the young. “I have a friend who just got into every single top 10 law school who wants to go into nonprofit stuff, and another friend who’s a triple major with a 4.0 here who wants to be a professor instead of taking a job at Goldman Sachs,” she says. “There’s definitely that element that really loves learning and loves the idea of helping the community.”
Beckett, an economics major, will enroll in a master’s program in journalism in the fall, even though starting salaries in the field lag well behind those of other disciplines. “I know for the first couple of years I’m going to be making quite a bit less than I’m paying for a year of schooling right now,” she says.
Still, given today’s media-centric society, it’s inevitable that more and more students aspire to the good life. MTV’s “Cribs,” the WB’s “The O.C.” and other popular programs showing young people wearing designer clothes and living in luxury homes are ratcheting up aspirations. But there’s a lot more at play, as this generation has been marketed to “with great intensity and sophistication” since birth, according to Dungan. At the same time, a high rate of financial illiteracy among young people and the bombardment of preapproved credit card offers has lead many students to buy status brands at a young age.
UCLA senior Lindsey Scott has made “trends and conformity” the focus of her senior project, so she looks at her fashion-savvy friends on another level. “Having certain brands gives people a certain personality and status,” Scott says. “People who go for certain brands do it to get a certain reaction out of their crowd or audience. It’s not so much an expression of individualism, but more one of conformity. Basically, you’re taking something everyone wants or has because you want to be like everyone else.” Scott also notes that many students are more likely to be remembered for being the one with the Vuitton bag or for always wearing Volcom, than for what they do or for what they believe.”
Some take an even darker view. Thomas Naylor, a former Duke University economics professor, is co-author of “Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic,” and creator of Duke’s “The Search for Meaning” course. “Many Americans use consumerism to try to deny the human condition, to try to pretend we are all connected and will live forever,” he says. All in all, students’ engage in overt consumption to try to defy our “meaninglessness, powerlessness and fear of dying — what we all have in common,” Naylor maintains, adding that that can only lead to anti-intellectualism. Today’s students, he believes, are likely embracing their consumerism as “a reaction to terrorism, war, globalization and imperial dominance.”
Au contraire, claim some fashion girls. “I don’t take fashion that seriously,”
says Amanda Fitzsimons, a freshman at Northwestern University. “It doesn’t serve to overcome some huge void that’s looming in my life. You have to enjoy life. When I pick out clothes, there are certain designers I like, but I don’t look at labels right away.” At the same time, Fitzsimons says she doesn’t view fashion as superficial, because “it’s a way to be creative and express yourself.”
For some students, as for women of all ages, giving in to one’s consumer urges is a method of self-reward and diversion from life’s workday demands. “Shopping is a hobby for sure,” says Brittney Bramlett, a Colorado University freshman studying political science. “It’s something to do and to work for.”
Others view fashion as part of a larger cultural experience, and say that excessive focus on brand-consciousness misses the point. “Why do people like painting?” muses Columbia University senior Victoria Elman. “I mean, why do people like anything that’s visually pleasing? It’s aesthetics. It’s not necessarily superficial. I don’t wear things that I think look amazing and beautiful because I think they look expensive. I think there’s a way to look at fashion intellectually. It’s an art.”
Duke’s Beckett agrees. “Fashion is part of the aesthetic world, just as architecture is,” she says. “You can study the history of fashion from a very academic perspective, from an historical perspective, from appreciating the beauty of the lines.”
Which does not, she readily admits, negate the value of the feel-good, store-bought fix, nor of the appeal of a status label. “I have this little Kate Spade bag in bright yellow. I think that on some level there’s that aestheticism that you just like the bag, and part of it is that you’re trying to have this label association. I definitely think that’s a factor.” And not necessarily a negative one. “Life doesn’t need to be, and shouldn’t be, something that’s all serious and constantly life and death,” Beckett says. “That’s depressing, and that’s not why we’re here.”