Title

Who Are Our Students?

Meeting them where they are.

October 8, 2020
 
 

Here are a few tidbits about today’s college students:

  • A quarter have an immigrant parent.
  • Most do not have a biological sibling, though many have stepsiblings.
  • Most did not grow up with two biological parents.
  • Only two-thirds describe themselves as exclusively heterosexual.
  • Most didn’t date regularly or have sexual intercourse while in high school.
  • Few regularly read a newspaper, and most learn about the news through smartphone notifications, tweets, social media, internet news aggregators or late-night television shows.
  • Most do not consider themselves religious and are largely unfamiliar with biblical references.
  • Most believe that there are more than two genders.

What should college faculty know about today’s undergraduates?

1. College students have never been more diverse -- but the degree of diversity varies widely depending on the institution.

To be sure, today’s student bodies include unprecedented numbers of students who come from lower-income households and historically underrepresented groups, who are the first in their family to attend college or who speak a language other than English at home. More students than ever are older than 25 or parents or work half-time to full-time. Substantial numbers commute to campus or attend school part-time.

However, diversity varies markedly by institution. We often hear that the stereotypical image of the college student who enrolls immediately after high school, lives in a dorm and attends college full-time is profoundly misleading. That’s true -- but not at the most selective campuses. There, student bodies, while increasingly diverse racially and ethnically, and to a lesser degree, socioeconomically, the stereotype remains largely true, especially if one doesn’t include general studies programs. There, in contrast to broader-access institutions, the sex ratio is basically balanced -- and the white population is larger.

Diversity is far greater at the broad-access urban publics, the regional comprehensives and at many Catholic institutions, which enroll the largest numbers of transfer, commuter, part-time and older students, working adults, and family caregivers.

The less selective institutions are also much more likely to have students who are food- or housing-insecure. The pandemic laid bare a reality too long overlooked: that a substantial number of students at the urban and regional public universities do not have a stable home to return to, and many lack a quiet place to study, a stable broadband internet connection or a functioning computer.

2. The traditional college-going experience (which was never entirely true) has grown rarer.

Most students do not earn a bachelor’s degree in four years. Only 60 percent of student who start a four-year college graduate within six years.

Meanwhile, many students swirl, with some transferring from a community college to a four-year institution (and sometimes returning), and some shifting from one four-year college or university to another.

Again, the traditional college-going experience remains the norm at the most selective institutions, even as it declines elsewhere.

3. College students lead very demanding lives.

Many, even at the most selective colleges and universities, are juggling multiple responsibilities. The range of responsibilities varies depending on the kind of institution. At the best-resourced institutions, much student time is spent on extracurriculars, research, campus jobs or internships. At broad-access institutions, students spend much more time on off-campus work or in family caregiving. Regardless, these students require a more flexible educational experience.

4. Mental health disorders and learning disabilities are far more visible than in the past.

Record numbers of students have a diagnosed learning disability, and a significant portion of the student body wrestles with mental health and other disorders that adversely affect their performance: anxiety, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, dyslexia, eating disorders, migraine headaches, sleep disorders, substance abuse and trauma.

5. Student activism is resurgent.

Students activism never disappeared, but it has certainly returned with a vengeance. Many of issues that activists focus on are local: protesting hikes in tuition and fees and calling for the hiring more faculty of color and more counselors, the removal of culturally insensitive statues and mascots, the renaming of buildings, making curriculum less Eurocentric, addressing sexual assault and harassment, treating campus staff fairly, and disarming public safety officers. Other issues are national or global, including climate change and racial injustice.

The new campus activism is distinctive in several respects, as Jerusha Conner has shown. The activists themselves are more diverse and their agenda is broader. Unlike the single-issue activists of the past, they are more likely to agitate on behalf of multiple causes and leverage social media to pressure for change. Perhaps the biggest change lies in the shift in the relationship between activist students and faculty and administrators. Although threats of expulsion or other disciplinary actions persist, administrators, partly out of fear of bad publicity, are much more willing to meet and collaborate with activists, even going so far as to invite them to speak with trustees.

The faculty needs to be highly attentive to the diversity of today’s student body. But faculty members also need to be sensitive to a profound shift in students’ mind-sets, values and aspirations.

We often hear that today’s students attend college, first and foremost, to earn a credential that will get them a good job, and that’s certainly true.

But it’s also the case that students bring other values to college, and if we fail to address those concerns, we miss an incredible opportunity to serve them.

1. Students are more outspoken about slights and inequities that they experience.

Any faculty member who expects students to be compliant and deferential is in for a rude awakening. Too often, students are deemed “fragile snowflakes” when they respond vocally to what they regard as insensitivity or slights or other acts of disrespect, or when they turn to some third-party authority figure (often a department chair or a dean) to seek a response.

The fact is that students today are far more willing than those in the past to speak out not only about outright acts of assault, bigotry, discrimination and harassment but the more subtle indignities that fall under the “microaggression” label: the insults, slights, snubs, put-downs and offensive statements that express bias, prejudice or hostility, and that create a hostile educational environment and exact a psychological toll that can negatively impact students’ confidence, mental health, sense of safety and academic performance.

At the same time, a significant majority of undergraduates believe it is important for colleges to respond when rude, inappropriate and insensitive behavior causes emotional distress and invalidates a classmate’s experiential reality.

Instructors need to recognize a basic truth: how students deal with interpersonal issues hinges on the rapport or lack of connection that a faculty member fosters. If there is a bond, problems resolve; it not, problems escalate.

As adults, we need to teach students the skills that will help them mediate disputes. But we can only do that if we establish a relationship of trust with our students and maintain ongoing communication.

2. Our students are increasingly interested in change making, innovation, making a better world, developing a more positive relationship with technology and leading a meaningful life

Sure, our students are career focused. Certainly, fewer say that they go to college to develop a philosophy of life, broaden their minds or experience the cultural riches that a college education offer. But that doesn’t mean that they are uninterested in tackling the issues of our time or developing a richer interior life or exposing themselves to the stimulations that are a big part of college life.

As faculty, we need to recognize our special responsibility to create opportunities for students to do those things that they so wish to do: to engage in innovation and social change, use technology in more constructive ways, and learn how to lead a life rich in meaning.

Humanists and social scientists, in particular, have a special responsibility to design, develop and deliver learning experiences that give students a chance to achieve those goals. There’s nothing wrong with offering a standard introductory course in history or sociology or political science -- but what about including a component in the class that does something more: that involves service learning or project development or reimagining the uses of technology or that gives students the opportunity to engage with contemporary art or theater?

If I might be permitted a personal example. At Oberlin, my stepson and his classmates had an opportunity to work with the chair of the psychology department on an app that used a game-like interface to elicit information from adolescents experiencing chronic pain -- an app now used in major medical centers. This is precisely the kind of eye-opening, life-transformative and socially constructive experience that we hope that our offspring receive at college, but too few do.

3. Most undergraduates occupy a particularly difficult life stage, and colleges and universities need to do a better job helping them make the transition to full adulthood.

Becoming an adult is much more difficult than it was half a century ago. Today, the passage to adulthood is far longer and less uniform than it was during the 1950s or 1960s. No longer can most young people achieve the markers of adulthood during their 20s: a secure job, a steady relationship and a stable place of residence.

Like many other aspects of contemporary life, a secure adulthood is becoming a class privilege.

What we need to do sounds straightforward but is in fact enormously challenging. We need to help our students identify their career goals and a realistic plan to achieve those. We also need to help them cultivate the full range of skills that adulthood demands, including interpersonal, intrapersonal, socio-emotional and self-regulatory skills. And we must foster the mind-set that adulthood requires: mature judgment, a sense of personal responsibility and an ability to cope with and bounce back from life’s disappointments.

There’s been a lot of criticism recently about consequences of the intensive, oversupervised, overorganized childrearing that has become the cultural norm among contemporary parents. This style has supposedly produced a generation of young people who find it difficult to cut the umbilical cord, establish an independent identity and grow up. But, of course, the problem doesn’t lie with our children, it lies with an economy that doesn’t offer sufficient opportunity to those with a higher education.

Our students are our collective children. We owe them much more than a quality academic education. We need to meet the full range of their needs and give them a chance to do what they seek: to engage in meaningful projects, lead a rich and consequential life, reimagine their relationship with technology, and create a more just and equitable society.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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