The New Student Generation: Are We Ready? Do We Care?
by George C. Dehne
Why are college students so literal?
Why has the major field become so important to this generation of students?
What motivates young people?
Do our admissions materials have an impact?
These are just a few of the questions that administrators and faculty ask me on campuses around the country. Yet we have found that there has been little discussion about this current generation of students and those we can expect at the turn of the century.
Certainly, most educators have noticed a change from generations of the past. Many lament it, but few have articulated what makes this current and rising generation of students so different and difficult. Whether we like the differences or not, colleges and universities have a responsibility to meet students where they are, rather than wish for another kind of student. Institutions must respond to the kinds of students they are dealing with now, be aware of who they are, how they think, and how they feel. Knowing more about this new generation is crucial for student recruitment anddelivering the kinds of educational and social services they need.
To learn more about the post-baby boomers, we reviewed more than 100 studies onthe age group between 12 and 20 years old. We looked at various attitudinal trends compiled by several organizations. We also reviewed our own research that includes surveys of nearly 6,000 college-bound students annually.
I can assure you that some of the traits of this generation will elicit an "I already knew that." But when you read the composite of these traits, you willhave to agree this is a very difficult and complex group of young people with whomto work and serve.
Let me also remind you that we are dealing with generalizations. To be fair, not all young people demonstrate the traits and characteristics we describe.
The Parent Trap
American family life has changed greatly. Consider the following statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau. The proportion of children living with just one parent rose from 9 percent in 1960 to 25 percent in 1990. Today, only half of children underage 18 live in A traditional nuclear family.
Smaller families are more predominant: By the 1990s, eight of 10 couples have had just one or two children. These children, often of better educated and older parents, will receive more attention and come from a more protective environment than we have ever seen. A Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company study has shown that baby boomers stress closeness to their children and freely give expressions of love and closeness.
This closeness has resulted in a more dependent student generation. Many, indeed,are latch-key children so they know how to handle themselves while alone. Yet, they are also very insecure in dealing with people outside their home and the immediate family.
We suspect there is not a college in the nation that has not noticed a dramatic increase in demand on its personal counseling office. When asked, counselors respond that the greatest topic of conversation is the handling of modest issues related to relationships with a roommate, a teacher, or a significant other. These are issues that past generations would probably handle on their own. Most of these students never had to share a room with a sibling, thus having a roommate creates tension. Because many have not had to share attention with more than one brother or sister, they demand more attention from professors, administrators and upper-class peers.
This dependency also results in more interference in the educational process. Professors and administrators at nearly every college with which I am familiar talk about the increasing number of calls from parents concerned about their child's progress, or lack there of.
Instead of the student talking to a professor about what seems to be an unfair grade, parents are more likely to intervene on their child's behalf -- an activity that happened only rarely a decade ago. In other words, parents are actively involved in the lives and education of their children even as colleges and universities stress the importance of young people becoming more independent thinkers and problem solvers.
This dependence has made these students less likely to strike out on their own. In our studies over the past eight to 10 years, we have seen the average distance that college-bound students are willing to travel to college drop from four to five hours down to two hours. In our most recent national study, six of 10 students preferred to attend a college within 100 miles of their homes.
This timidity also has academic implications. Students are less willing to explore a new field or pursue an independent study. We suspect this explains some of the growing resistance to distribution requirements that include fields with which students have little or no familiarity.
The dependency has affected overseas studies as well. Even though these students recognize the importance of an international experience, statistics show that fewer students are actually pursuing year-long or even semester-long overseas study programs. Instead, when possible, students are more likely to opt for an international experience that takes them away from their homes for only 10 days to three weeks.
The sense that these young people are less practiced in their interpersonal skills may partially explain why our studies of college-bound students show an increasinginterest in larger universities -- especially among males. At a large institution, one can remain anonymous and detached. At a smaller institution, the need to interact is far greater and the possibility of remaining anonymous is virtually non-existent.
What is your institution doing to help these students develop an independent spirit? What incentives does your institution have to get students to strike out on their own, intellectually or socially? How has your admissions office adapted to the less adventurous students?
Just Do It
These students are very literal. They have greater difficulty understanding symbols and have little ability to deal with abstract thinking. They need -- and want --to be told exactly what they need to know. College faculty members regularly lament that students demand to be told what is going to be on a test, how long a paper should be and even how long should they spend studying.
This generation is less able than past generations to connect theory to their own reality. They have a lower appreciation of the liberal arts than past generations because the concept of a broadening experience without a specific goal is difficult for this generation to comprehend. That is why, we believe, the major field has risen in importance. A major is an understandable concept: You focus on something and you learn it. In our surveys, more than seven of 10 students will tell us that a strong major in their field is more important than a broad-based or liberal arts education and even job and graduate school preparation.
This literalness comes naturally. The early baby boomers had reading and radio adventures that required setting a scene, imagining a situation, and filling in the holes. That is abstract thinking and the use of imagination. Later baby boomers,who had television, still had music as a way to exercise their imagination. Now we have music videos complete with visuals, so no conceptual exertion is required. Add this phenomenon to the fact that most students read very little except what is assigned and we have produced young people who have little ability to think abstractly and thus, are simply more literal.
Educators must intentionally find ways to rectify this deficiency -- perhaps in non-traditional ways such as actually teaching problem solving and abstract thinking skills rather than relying on traditional courses.
This generation is very money-minded. They live in a material world and they are comfortable in that world. They not only control a great deal of the spending, they are savvy beyond their years. This is already having an impact on higher education. In our studies of college-bound students and their parents, we have found that students have become as sensitive and, often more so, than their parents to the cost of a college education and what they are willing to pay. Often it is the student who determines to go to a less expensive institution or the college that offers the greatest "discount. "When we asked how much they were willing to pay for a college education, the responses from both child and parent in the same family were usually within $1,000 of each other.
On the other hand, this student generation may also be more unwilling than past generations to give up their designer jeans, their Nike or Reebok sneakers, and their cars in order to attend a higher-cost institution, even if all things point to it being better for them. A Northwestern National Life Insurance survey discovered that"45 percent of the parents and 36 percent of the students thought that a college education costs more than it is worth." This survey included people with children in or considering lower-cost state-supported schools as well as private colleges.
For this generation of students, work experiences start early. According to research by BKG Youth, a market research firm, more than one of three 12- to 19-year-olds have part-time jobs. Interestingly, children from higher income families are more likely to work than their peers from more moderate incomes. In our studies of current college students, we find that two of three are working on or off campus. When we ask college students why they work, about half say to pay for college, but a great percentage also say they work to purchase personal items or pay for a car. Interestingly,one of three also tells us they work to gain experience for a career.
Faced with a working clientele, most colleges complain that students' part-time jobs have reduced the participation in afternoon student activities. We also hear concerns that the great number of hours many students work results in tired and less productive students. While these may be legitimate concerns, we believe the working traditional-age student is here to stay whether we like it or not. It is our view, therefore, that colleges must find ways to make work a productive part of the educational and college experience.
Is your institution making a persuasive argument that students are getting their money's worth? Has your college or university addressed the question of value? What has your institution done to connect part-time work to the students' college experience?
Not Happy Campers
Gone, apparently, are the joyful and carefree college years. This generation is less than confident about the country. Nor do they naturally trust people or institutions-- including higher education. Despite the importance they attach to the major field, the American Freshman Survey by Alexander Astin showed that six of 10 college students do not believe they will find a job in their chosen field. We suspect the percentage has increased significantly since then. In short, this group is in shock about the future. College is not years of optimism and idealism. A recent survey of teens,ages 13 to 17, by the American Board of Family Practice found the following:
* Three of four believe the world in which their parents lived while growing up was better than the one in which they live.
* More than half believe the world their children will inherit will be worse than the world in which they live.
* Three of four believe environmental pollution will eventually affect the health of the entire population.
* Six of 10 expect someone in their family to be a victim of crime.
* Six of 10 expect someone in their family will get AIDS.
These are not happy campers. They are hammered by falling expectations and the uncertain future of American society and its institutions.
Additionally, they don't feel safe. They are aware of date rape and that your best friend can turn on you and abuse you. They are worried about AIDS. Sex, the one thing they have learned to look forward to, has been linked to terror. They have a real sense that life is short. Some studies suggest they are less emotional overall.
Higher education has added to their anxiety. In the Northwestern National Life study, for example, more than half the freshman high school students indicated that they were "very worried" or "somewhat worried" about the rising cost of a college education, paying for college, and being accepted by the college of their choice. Remember these are only ninth graders.
Don't we as members of an "industry" that serves young people have some responsibility for instilling trust in our society's institutions and a sense of optimism in those who will inherit them?
Higher education and its prospective clientele may well be heading toward a clash of expectations. How higher education usually views the attributes of success are quite different from those of high school students. In a national poll conducted for Drexel University's Center for Employment Futures, we found that a surprisingly low number of 15-17 year olds appreciate the benefits of higher education.
Only 16% of the students said it was extremely important "to speak a foreign language." One of four said the "ability to formulate creative, ideas and solutions" was extremely important. Gaining the "ability to understand the historical, cultural and philosophical background of a current problem "was considered extremely important by one of three young people. Less than four of 10 said being "able to write well" was extremely important.
On the other hand, nearly six of 10 said "the ability to get along well with other people" was an extremely important skill for future success. This was followed by "work well as part of a team" (51%), "relate well with people from different racial or ethnic groups" (49%), "be able to use a computer" (46%), and "communicate well orally" (43%).
What do these students have to do with your institution? More than half expect to get a four-year degree. (Interestingly, six of 10 strongly agreed that a college degree is necessary for career success.) Additionally, nearly half of those polled strongly agreed that a degree from a graduate school soon will be necessary for success. (It is also interesting to note that about three of four say that the "costof higher education is too high.")
College bound students also expect a wide variety of outcomes and opportunities from the college or universities they choose. In GDA's national study of college-boundstudents the top five characteristics of a college (not including financial and locational issues ), in order of importance are the following:
* A strong major in their field of interest
* Preparation for a career
* The ability to customize their education to meet special interests and needs
* Development of the "whole person" (tie)
* Accessible faculty (tie)
* Preparation for graduate or professional school.
These students want it all from their college experience. In the '80s, our surveys of college-bound students showed an overwhelming emphasis on the "credential," such as career preparation, job placement, and professional school preparation. Now their expectations of personal and professional development delivered in intentional ways have certainly become more important. More flexible curricula (double majors, self-designed majors, interdisciplinary study) and off-campus options (internships,service-learning, short overseas experiences) have moved up dramatically in importance. Are colleges and universities prepared and able to provide all of this?
Think Locally, Ignore Globally
This generation cares little about the political process. They are pragmatists rather than liberals or conservatives. While they do not think globally, they do think locally. They are quiet activists. In Astin's American Freshman Survey, we have seen a great decline in the number of students who said they participated in student protests. Yet we also have seen a phenomenal rise in the number of students who say they have participated in community or volunteer service. While this generation is less interested in national and political causes, they are more interested in doing things that may have a positive impact on a few people. Most in higher education have noticed that volunteerism and community service among students has grown rapidly. These "new" students may not believe they can change the bigger picture, but they certainly believe they can influence the smaller ones.
The dilemma, however, is this: Who will be our political leaders of the future? We believe the decline in the number of students applying to law school is related to a lack of interest in entering politics.
Play Is The Thing
This age group hates to be bored and they seek entertainment in everything they do -- including college and the work they expect to do when they graduate. Many studies we reviewed indicated this generation really does have a shorter attention span. One research study actually suggested that the attention span of most adolescents is about 11 minutes -- roughly the time between commercials in a typical television show.
To succeed with this group, an active learning environment will be a necessity, not a luxury. Energetic teachers who educate and entertain will be crucial if we are to reach and educate this generation. Faculty members must understand that reaching this group is not going to be nearly as easy as it was to deal with the more active and open generations of the past.
The need for more exciting and entertaining admissions materials will also create an added burden on institutions looking to attract these students.
This group is also visually sophisticated. They can take in and sort through visual and auditory information at high speed. But, we are not talking about a visual learning proficiency that includes reading. I watch my teens "surf" three or fourtelevision shows at once. They rarely watch one show all the way through. But when I ask them what they have seen, they can give the plots, subplots or major points of all four shows. Because of their visual sophistication, this age group truly appreciates a good media presentation. But, unlike my age group, they are not fooled by media.
Our focus groups tell us students often ignore the foreground of admissions photographs and concentrate on the detail in the background. They look for truth in the details, not in the things we want them to see.
It should be no surprise this age group knows and responds to advertising. And the more advertising surprises them, the more they like it. But they also know audience manipulation. And they know that advertising is audience manipulation.
I have sat with college-bound students who have run their fingers across a signature on a personal letter and have them tell me, correctly, that it was done by a signature machine.
They are certainly not fooled by video production. They see film and video as the ultimate managed medium. After all, they have seen Jurassic Park where dinosaurs terrorized the world of today. They know dinosaurs no longer exist, but that good special effects do. In our own studies, we found that only one of 10 respondents said a college video was very useful in their choice of a college. These young people know that you can manufacture a happy campus, complete with happy students, and shoot a tree from a hundred angles to make it look like a forest.
In one study we uncovered, we found that only three of 10 young people believe advertising paints a true picture of a product. When given seven advertising messages to choose from, the one with the greatest impact was the one touting a "money-back guarantee."
This generation is very skeptical about those things which they understand and that includes media. That is why we have found that honesty is the key to gaining credibility in the admissions process -- even if it may not always place your institution in the best light. In student recruitment, incorporating those materials that are actually used by current students often has more impact than all the slick materials produced especially for the admissions office.
While many colleges talk about more visually enhanced teaching, we still see large lecture halls with a professor using the most primitive visual tools.
In our own research, we have also discovered a variety of givens: things that this generation of students expects from a college experience.
These are truly the "greenteens." Environmentalism is "in" and colleges better walk the walk as well as talk the talk. In a study by Teenage Research Unlimited, eight of 10 teenagers said they would buy one product over another based on an environmental safety claim. Six of 10 said they recycle regularly. One of two actually has gone out of their way to find "environmentally friendly products."
We have seen a prospective student walk into an admissions office with an empty recyclable soda can and ask for the recycling bin. When the receptionist said the college did not recycle, the young woman walked out without staying for her interview.
These students know it is a shrinking world and expect a college to prepare them for it. Yet, because they lack a sense of adventure, they may not, as we mentioned earlier, show an increased interest in foreign study. Colleges must make it clear that exploring another culture is an essential part of becoming a "citizen of the world."
This generation understands and enjoys technology. Just look at the use of electronic mail by students on campus. In fact, our studies show nearly 40 percent of college-bound students have access to the Internet or electronic mail. Unfortunately, students are generally naive about the use of technology in education. This means they might not be able to discern the difference between a technologically rich campus from one that simply has a computer laboratory. This might change, but at this point technology is a given and all colleges should have it -- whatever "it" is.
College-bound students, especially high-ability and higher-income students, seek and expect diversity. In fact, students who attended private high schools are more likely to seek diversity than those who attended public high schools. The lack of apparent diversity on some smaller campuses has played a role, we believe, in moving good students to larger institutions. Diversity, of course, means many different things. Ethnic and racial diversity are paramount, but socioeconomic and geographic diversity are also important to many prospective students. It is our view that institutions with little diversity will eventually become irrelevant to this generation of students.
The Change Has Been Noted
Colleges must develop the symbols and deal with the reality of this new generation of students. We owe it to these young people to take advantage of their views and provide the tools needed for their future. Ironically, employers -- not higher education-- have been quicker to notice the change in this generation of young people.
In the 1980s, the top qualities that employers sought in college-educated employees were technical skills and aptitude. These are no longer what employers seek. According to Michigan State University's annual survey on corporate recruiting trends, employers value problem solving skills, outstanding communication skills, interpersonal and customer relations abilities, and up-to-date computer skills. In today's corporate environment of restructuring and re-engineering, college graduates must be flexible, adaptable and versatile. They also must be able to balance the roles of self-starter and team player. Is your college or university meeting these expectations?
The Final Fly In The Ointment
There is little doubt in my mind that colleges and universities must adapt quickly to the new student generation. We must give them the confidence to enjoy the future and the skills they do not inherently have, but we should not expect a ground swell of appreciation from these students. They, like most of us, are reasonably oblivious to their shortcomings. Despite the concerns we have heard for more than a decade on how poorly prepared most high school students are for college, three of four high school students believe they are getting a better education than their parents. Thisis a critical point. Those of us in higher education complain that most studentsare ill prepared for college. Yet we are dealing with students who think they are better prepared than their parents. Unfortunately, perception is reality to these young people. To succeed with this generation of students, a college must not only provide what they need, but do it in such a way that we preserve what little self-confidence and self-esteem students have.
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