Students Then and Now

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October 14, 2006

Students Then and Now

Maybe it is because I have been in higher education administration since 1976 that I am occasionally asked how students differ today from thirty years ago. For one thing they are a lot younger! No wait, actually I am just older. When I started out I was barely older than some of the students I taught, so naturally I saw things through a much different lens. However, there are some real dfferences.

Coming out of the 60’s and early 70’s students were transitioning from in loco parentis, that is, where the college took on the role of parent, to a more activist role on campus. Students were for the first time serving on committees, taking an active role in student government, and exercising individual rights. Up until then dormitories often had strict curfews for women (not the men) and many other rules that no longer applied. Partly for that reason I think students in those days were much more active and confrontive than they are today.

Along those same lines parents were hardly ever involved with faculty and administrators. In those days if a student had a problem he or she was more likely to work it out with the individual teacher. Today a parent thinks nothing about calling a faculty member or administrator or the president to appeal some decision or intervene with an issue. The phenomenon of “helicoptering parents” has been well documented and it certainly represents a change.

Over the years I have seen a greater emphasis on grades. The so called “gentleman’s C” is no more. Grade inflation has resulted in an expectation that everyone will get an A or B. This is especially true of those hoping to get into graduate schools. I believe that this has had a direct impact on the incidents of cheating and plagiarism as students become desperate to maintain their averages. The faculties are as much at fault as students but it is a bad trend.

Another trend has been in the area of dating and relationships. Students are more likely to “date” in groups than in earlier years and they take much longer to marry. Part of the reason may be that many take on substantial debt in college and graduate school and literally have to wait until they can afford it. Consequnetly many students wait to start families until later in life.

Students today have much more information to process than those in previous years. With so many forms of media available the ability to think logically and communicate effectively is growing more important to the outcomes of education. Students use more shorthand for communication today. Technology has made communication more personal (Facebook) and more accessible to the masses than ever. The availability of technology generally may be the most significant trend in student life in the last thirty years.

There is much more diversity in our culture and students today seem to care less about racial and ethnic differences than earlier generations. In terms of how we relate globally to other cultures, I am not sure that much has changed. We know more but we do not seem to be doing all that much more.

Students today seem to be more focused on outcomes and “doing” than knowing. This is often reflected in a service to others mentality that is quite healthy. However, students do not seem to be as engaged in reflection, preferrring action and reality instead.

Students are more mobile today. It is not unusual for students to go to several colleges before earning a degree.

Some things are very much the same. Students still like to go to parties. They still want as much financial aid as possible. They still have concerns about dating and relationships. Many worry about all the conflict in the world and how that affects their future.

Personally, I am encouraged by what I see in tomorrow’s leaders. They certainly inherit a host of problems but hopefully they will be better equipped than previous generations to solve them. I do not think today’s students are particularly better or worse, just different and unique in their own way.