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President of Woodrow Wilson Foundation Speaks about Students Today
By Arthur Levine & Diane Dean


Boards of trustees are dealing with a panoply of Star Wars-like issues that their predecessors could never have imagined. Should our institution offer MOOCs? Does it still make sense to continue to buy books for the library? How does our institution educate students to live in an emerging global society or to work at jobs that do not yet exist? Yet looming larger and more immediate is a change that has already occurred: students today are different from their predecessors in ways that have profound implications for colleges and their boards. Those are the findings of a study we conducted between 2006 and 2012 of current undergraduates, including a survey of a nationally representative sample of 5,000 students; two surveys and interviews with chief student affairs officers; and focus group interviews with students on 33 campuses. (Comparable studies were carried out in 1969, 1976, and 1993.) Five differences between students today and their predecessors stand out.

1. Today’s undergraduates are the first generation of digital natives. The class of 2013 was born into a world in which Apple, Microsoft and AOL already existed. By the time those students were in kindergarten, texting, Web browsers, smartphones, DVDs, Yahoo and the dot-com bubble were realities. Before today’s students finished elementary school, Google and the iPod had come onto the scene. Middle school brought Skype and Facebook. They had to wait until high school for YouTube, Twitter, and the iPhone. The ubiquitous presence of such technologies has shaped students’ understanding of the world. It has influenced their preferences and molded their expectations for how they will learn, work, socialize, recreate, and live. The result is a growing and fundamental mismatch between our analog higher education institutions and the digital natives whom we enroll. In contrast, digital natives prefer active and concrete learning involving practical applications, games, and collaborations. They focus on gathering a breadth of information rather than gaining depth. Skilled gatherers, they are adept at and comfortable with finding information “just in time.” A majority (78 percent) think undergraduate education would be improved if classes made greater use of technology and professors knew more about how to use it. Half would like more blended instruction in their courses, combining online and in-person classes. A third would like more courses completely online. This fundamental mismatch is producing problems in the classroom. That issue is particularly apparent with regard to conflict resolution, which students prefer to handle through the psychological distance of technology. Students argue via texting, and “unfriend” each other via social media sites. Over two-fifths of the campuses we surveyed reported increases in online incivility among students. Over half reported increased Internet or e-mail stalking and harassment.

2. Today’s undergraduates are older. Fewer live on campus and more attend part-time. Most people think of traditional undergraduates as college students—those who are 18 to 24 years old, attend college full-time, and live on a campus. But such students make up less than a quarter of all undergraduates.

Nontraditional students, the new majority of undergraduates, are older, primarily women, employed, and attend college part-time. Higher education is one of the many activities—including commitments to families, spouses, friends, and jobs—that they juggle each day. College is often not their principal priority.

These students are prime candidates for online degrees, and proprietary institutions, as competitors with traditional campuses, gear programs to their needs. These students are markedly different from traditional students who are asking for collegiate life with all the bells and whistles in facilities, services, physical plant, and course offerings. In short, the current marketplace for colleges is composed of consumer-oriented populations with sharply opposed expectations and demands than what colleges traditionally have been offering students.

3. Today’s undergraduates are products of the worst economy since the Depression. The students now enrolled believe the economy is the most important issue facing the country. It has determined whether, where, and how they go to college. One in four who previously lived on his or her own is moving back in with parents. Across the spectrum of colleges we surveyed, a majority (68 percent) of deans reported that greater numbers of students are working, and they are working longer hours. Most working students (80 percent) say they need or want the money to pay for basic living expenses and tuition. In short, today’s undergraduates are more vocationally oriented, more likely to choose their college based upon cost, and less likely to live on the campus than their predecessors. They want programs that will provide them with jobs.

4. Today’s undergraduates are more immature, dependent, coddled, and entitled. Two-fifths of undergraduates told us that they phone, e-mail, or text their parents daily. One-fifth said they contact their parents three times a day or more. Students routinely ask their parents for advice on college courses or assignments, issues with roommates and friends, and other intimate aspects of college life. Nearly half of undergraduates turn to their parents for such guidance. Such fathers and mothers, often described as “helicopter parents” for their hovering behaviors, come to students’ rescue. As many as 45 percent take remedial courses. Although students are in constant contact with peers via social media, a majority of undergraduates (61 percent) say they feel lonely. They say they are overwhelmed by all they have to do (87 percent), feel psychologically exhausted (79 percent), and experience overwhelming anxiety (61 percent). In sum, the students whom colleges are educating are more dependent on adults, communicate poorly face to face, expect continuing approbation for their work, have inflated perceptions of their strengths, and require significantly more psychological and emotional support.

5. Today’s undergraduates are the most diverse generation in higher education history. Students now on college campuses have grown up in a nation in which many of the historic glass ceilings that existed for women, people of color, and gay people have cracked. They believe the country has made real progress in race, ethnic, and gender issues; they have close friends of other races and most are comfortable with interracial dating and marriage. Current undergraduates are also environmentally green and global in orientation. Still, they have little knowledge about the world. Most were, for example, unable to recognize the names of the leaders of China, France, and Iran. Those findings present colleges and their boards with an opportunity to translate their rhetoric about multiculturalism and diversity into concrete plans and to make internationalization of their programs a priority.

Implications for board members:

These changes in undergraduates suggest to us five questions board members should ask about their institutions.

1. What is the mission of our institution?

In 1828, after the Connecticut legislature condemned the curriculum of Yale College for its irrelevance and cut the college’s financial support, Yale issued a report. That report was an account of a college being pressured to change as the nation was transformed from an agrarian to an industrial economy. It asked whether Yale should change a lot or a little, quickly or gradually. Yet the authors concluded that was the wrong question. The right question, was “What is the purpose of a college?” That is still the correct question, and all others should follow from it. Should a college offer MOOCs? Should it build buildings; change the composition of its faculty, or increase its budget in one area as opposed to another? In today’s financial environment, few campuses can do everything, and mission is the true compass for choosing one priority over another.

2. What type of students does our institution seek to enroll? Different student populations demand different things of their colleges. Our research found that traditional and nontraditional students are, in fact, making diametrically opposed demands. Students are not fungible. Institutions need to plan carefully which populations they want to enroll, then gear their activities to their mission and that student body.

3. Beyond pocketbook issues, what does the board need to know about our institution’s students? Boards should ask for annual student dashboards with key indicators about their students and their activities. Those indicators might include those concerning demographics, admissions, financial need and aid levels, classes and courses, attendance patterns, remedial needs, grades, parental involvement, graduation rates, time to degree, post-college employment, student and employer satisfaction.

4. Does our institution have established plans in areas such as: digital future, diversity, internationalization, affordability, and career services? Given today’s students and the global transition to a digital information economy, these areas are essential for college action. Institutions and their boards can better address them through long-term plans than by drift and accretion.

5. How can our board best monitor the effectiveness and relevance of our institution’s policies and programs vis-à-vis student needs? You can accomplish that in many ways—externally, by means of accreditation or periodic visiting committees, or internally, through continuing institutional research. The mechanism is less important than an institution’s commitment to gather and act upon this information.

Boards need to ask the fundamental questions rather than being distracted by the fad du jour, collect data rather than relying upon anecdotes and personal predilections, and encourage their institution to develop long-term plans rather than drifting or adopting a succession of piecemeal changes. While the challenges facing higher education are great today, this is also a moment of unprecedented opportunity. No generation in modern memory has had a better chance to shape the future of higher education.#

Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teacher’s College at Columbia University. Diane R. Dean is associate professor of higher education administration and policy at Illinois State University. They are the authors of Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student (Jossey Bass, 2012).



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