Recently, news sites were buzzing with the story of a Monroe College graduate who sued her school for full tuition reimbursement plus stress-related damages. She claimed that in the three months since she received her Bachelor’s degree, the college’s Office of Career Advancement failed. While the woman insists that she has done her due diligence, the school has “not tried hard enough to help” her find work. Further, she argues, other unemployed post-grads should take up the cause. “It doesn’t make any sense,” she says, “They went to school for four years, and then they come out working at McDonald’s and Payless. That’s not what they planned.”
In addition to this case’s obvious contribution to our litigious society, it also illustrates the instrumental approach to higher education and the culture of entitlement among many 20somethings and undergraduate students. College isn’t about intellectual enrichment and the promotion of a well-rounded citizenry anymore (if it ever was, though that was the operative ideal for many years). Rather, college is routinely seen (by administrators as much as students) as a contractual relationship in which students (or their parents or loan holders) pay increasing amounts of cash and in return receive good grades and, apparently, guaranteed employment.
Such a lawsuit might be the next logical step for Post Grad‘s Ryden Malby (Alexis Bledel). Having prepared all her life for academic success, she has completed as well the requisite extracurriculars and internships, and been rewarded with consistently excellent grades. Now she’s graduating from a tony liberal arts college with a major in English, all set to “forge ahead and stake [her] rightful claim at the top.” As phrased by valedictorian Jessica (Catherine Reitman), this future seems assured. Ryden is so confident that she puts down first and last month’s rent and security deposit on a swanky condo in LA before she interviews a fancy LA publishing house.
But then Ryden doesn’t get the job. And after a few more snafus, she’s forced to move back home with her “wacky” family while she continues to look for a job. Oh, the indignities! In addition to contending with Grandma Maureen (Carol Burnett), Ryden must also live with little brother Hunter (Bobby Coleman), who gets in repeated trouble at school for licking other students. And her father, Walter (Michael Keaton), is always chasing after one cockamamie get-rich scheme after another, the most recent being to sell novelty belt buckles.
The real indignity, of course, is that Ryden can’t find a job, at least one worth her while and her ostensibly estimable skills. This affront is doubled by the fact that seemingly all of her classmates are either getting ready to go off to Ivy League law schools or landing jobs with Charles Schwab or other Fortune-500 companies. In a moment of wallowing self-pity, Ryden mopes to her best friend Adam (Zach Gilford), that she always “just thought that I’d be doing something amazing by now.” Poor thing! She’s been out of school two months. No wonder she would “feel like such a loser.”
In a moment of desperation, Ryden agrees to work with her father, whose legit job is manager of a shopping mall luggage store. Unsurprisingly, she sucks as a sales-person. The necessary shilling of the hourly wage-slave is just sooo common, and clearly beneath her. When old college nemesis Jessica comes into the store to get a new briefcase for her fabulous first job, the embarrassment is simply too much, and Ryden quits on the spot and leaves the store in a huff.
What’s embarrassing here is not so much that the job is “beneath” her, but that Ryden would feel embarrassed for having any job, and feel so entitled to something “better” that she can be entirely cavalier about quitting. Like our Monroe College grad, Ryden clearly sees some jobs, like working at McDonald’s or the Payless or the local Luggage Shack, as inherently shameful. But really the shame is entirely on Ryden, who comes across here as a spoiled brat.
If only Post Grad challenged such presumptions and hubris, it might make its rom-com clichés more tolerable. The film does dance around this possibility, as Ryden is forced to reconsider what she’s always taken for granted, namely that she somehow “naturally” deserves certain opportunities and benefits. But this reconsideration is all too brief, as brief as her realization that her best friend Adam, who has always loved her and hoped she would come around to returning that love, is “the one.” Does Ryden get the job? Does she get the guy? What do you think?