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Hollywood’s Newest Movie About College Gets One Thing Right

Quick: Name a movie about college.

Depending on your age and cinematic tastes, you probably thought of something like Animal House, The Social Network, or Rudy. You were less likely to name one of the handful of films centered around nontraditional students, like Back to School, Old School, or the newest addition to the genre, Larry Crowne, the Tom Hanks romantic comedy that hit theaters today.

Given Hollywood’s predilection for youth and beauty, no one should be surprised that movie studios favor scripts that focus on the “traditional” college student. But as Peter J. Stokes, executive vice president of the higher-education consulting firm Eduventures Inc., points out, that image is a misleading one.

“Roughly 15 percent of students are what we picture, especially in a Hollywood way, when we think about higher education: the 18-to-22-year-old who lives in a dorm on campus,” says Mr. Stokes. Full-time students of the same age who live off campus constitute another 15 percent, he says.

The popular image of the typical college student is accurate for only about a third of the population.

In the new movie, Mr. Hanks plays a middle-aged employee of a big-box store who is downsized out of a job because he never earned a college diploma. He responds by heading back to college and—in a plot turn whose ethics we won’t consider here—hooking up with his speech professor, played by Julia Roberts.

Fifty percent or more of the people in college, Mr. Stokes points out, look a lot like the character that Mr. Hanks plays (minus, perhaps, the unfailingly upbeat attitude and the ability to woo unhappily married professors who look like Ms. Roberts). Mr. Stokes observes that while most Americans have a close friend or relative who returned to college later in life, the stereotype of the youthful college student is burned into the collective retina.

“Even if the image of higher education doesn’t conform to their own experience,” he says, “they still retain that image because it’s so common in the culture.”

Television has acknowledged nontraditional students in at least a couple noteworthy series over the years, the first being Hank, a 1965-66 situation comedy in which an orphaned teen sneaks into college classes in between odd jobs that he works to support himself and his sister. More recently, Dan Harmon, creator of NBC’s Community, says the series was inspired by his own experience as an adult learner at a community college.

Likewise, Mr. Hanks, who directed and co-wrote Larry Crowne, has told reporters that he drew inspiration for the story from his time attending Chabot College, a community college in Hayward, Calif.

Mr. Stokes says that just as Community emerged at a moment when the Obama administration was promising to pump money into community colleges, Larry Crowne comes at a pivotal time for nontraditional students.

“In many respects there’s never been a better time to be in adult education,” he says.

Two years ago, in his first State of the Union address, President Obama asked “every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.” Now Mr. Hanks, who is often called the president’s biggest supporter in Hollywood, has drawn a character who heeded that call and who found both workplace and romantic success as a result.

Will America’s aging movie audiences be as charmed by Larry Crowne as Ms. Roberts’s character is? Mr. Stokes isn’t sure.

“I do think that films collectively can kind of change the way an audience thinks,” he says. “Whether this movie will be part of a genre of films that get folks thinking about going back to school at age 40, or 45, or 50, I don’t know, but it’s possible.” He adds: “The fact that the economic environment is such that it’s considered realistic to set a love story in this context is interesting.”

And speaking of adult enrollments, Mr. Stokes notes that more than a quarter of them are in distance education, leading him to wonder when we can expect to see the first movie about online higher education.

“That’s just waiting to happen,” he says. “If Tom Hanks did You’ve Got Mail, then why can’t he do You’ve Got Degree?” —Don Troop

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