Feed on

When the trustees were here last weekend, I shared a compelling article with them— “Ways Today’s Students Are Radically Changing Our Colleges” from AGB Trusteeship magazine. The article reviews the findings of a six-year national study involving 33 campuses and thousands of students and concludes that students today are “different from their predecessors in ways that have profound implications for colleges.” Three similar studies were conducted between 1969 and 1993.

I would like to share some of the findings with you because you might find them interesting. To me, they raise a fundamental question, What is Middlebury’s role in educating today’s 21st-century students, and how flexible do we need to be to meet their “needs”?

The article states that the primary differences between students today and their predecessors are

  •  “Today’s undergraduates are the first generation of digital natives.”
  • “Undergraduates are older, fewer live on campus, and more attend part time.”
  • “Students are products of the worst economy since the Great Depression.”
  • “They are more immature, dependent, coddled, and entitled.”
  • “They are the most diverse generation in higher education history.”

For this column, I would like to talk about two in particular.

Digital natives: Operating in a 24/7 universe, in which almost everything is instantly accessible, is an unprecedented societal change. The article notes a “mismatch” between the students and institutions of higher ed that conduct business in real time and in real locations and use more linear, passive learning tools, such as lectures and books. Digital natives, however, “prefer active and concrete learning involving applications, games, and collaborations.” They tend to gather information as needed and “don’t understand that plagarism is wrong” because, for them, sharing in all forms is routine, highlighting another possible incongruity as we struggle to enforce our academic-honesty policies. How should Colleges deal with the fact that their students exist in an entirely different realm of experience than the faculty and administrators?

Additionally, digital natives are more comfortable texting than talking. Many people have observed that students today are not as skilled in interpersonal communication and that they don’t have the necessary tools to cope with conflict. Again, does Middlebury have a role to play here? It’s intriguing, for example, to think about interventions that would raise awareness and encourage face-to-face interaction: instituting campus-wide digital-free days or weeks, requiring conversations like JusTalks,  establishing device-free zones.

Immature, dependent, coddled, and entitled: The article describes students who rely on their parents more heavily than previous generations did; they are not as independent or self-reliant. Two-fifths reported that they “phone, e-mail, or text their parents daily” and one-fifth reported being in contact three times a day or more. The article also noted that students report feeling isolated, lonely, having “overwhelming anxiety,” and being “psychologically exhausted.” They “require significantly more psychological and emotional support.”

My colleagues and I are concerned about the psychological stresses students face, often well before they get to college, and the resiliency that many students don’t possess.  I would like to understand this better from your perspective and experience. Your observations, reactions, and suggestions about any of the topics raised in the article may help us find ways to respond to students’ emerging needs.  Most importantly, are there aspects of these findings that call for students to push themselves to claim a different experience in college?  Do you want something different from Middlebury or something different from yourself and your peers?

Copies of the article are in my office for anyone wishing to read it. It is not available online, so come by and see me in person (smile).


31 Responses to “Today’s Students Are Changing Colleges”

  1. George T. Gallagher says:

    Dear Dean Collado,
    I applaud your obvious interest in matters academic and your willingness to put study results in a prominent place to foster discussion. I’ve been brought up (as I’m sure you have too) to be cautious about “sound bite” science blurbs for the popular press, however. When something comes along that piques my interest I prefer to go to the source so that I can better decide whether the results reported are to be trusted and are applicable to the population(s) I care about. Please provide the reference for the “six-year national study involving 33 campuses and thousands of students”, so I can check it out for myself.
    As a Midd parent I have feedback from my son and a few of his acquaintances; certainly not a population sample. The Midd kids I have met so far are naturally comfortable with electronics, but nobody seems to believe that Middlebury is failing to provide supportive platforms or that the teachers’ attitudes and abilities are compromising the learning possibilities. It will naturally require continuing efforts to keep up, but I would say as regards Middlebury information technology, “so far, so good”.
    In the dark ages when my wife and I attended college we stepped on campus and were outside of our parents’ reach; telephones were few, and we only used them when there was something important to say. Those days are gone forever, sadly I think. I do believe there must be gender differences in the “parental contact” thing, however, since we have not been overly burdened with messages from our son. I do think that gentle pressures from the college to discourage the “cell phone, texting, continuous communication” mindset would be welcomed by many. My son works at a traditional summer camp where for weeks on end cell phones and computers are simply not permitted, and the campers, male and female both, seem to survive and actually to thrive. I work in a grad school setting and I’ve been forced to ban cell phones in my classes (computers and tablets are by necessity allowed). Draconian measures would naturally be counter-productive, but I bet the students themselves might welcome some norms regarding quiet time in some settings.
    As to the second point regarding narcissism, entitlement and toxic stress, I think the issues are much more complicated. Middlebury has a rich heritage, but my son and wife and I, looking from way outside at first, saw the place as “small, rural, and elite academically”. There are plenty of academically elite colleges and universities and we visited a few, but our son seemed attracted most by the “small, rural” part of the package and wound up going with Midd early decision. Implicit in his attraction was the hope that a supportive community of students, faculty and administrators was more likely to be found in such a place, and that seems to have worked out for him. I agree with the implication in your commentary that students prepping to be eligible for admission to an academically elite college today are probably very talented and/or under extraordinary pressure. The high cost of attending Midd and the academic advantages provided to students by families of means insure that the population of accepted students will include many who have never lacked material resources. Obviously students who don’t enjoy such advantages could be made to feel isolated, but the communal living, orientation programs and opportunities for participation in interest groups seem to me to help greatly with the overall feeling of community and mutual support. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the strange mix of characters that constitutes my son’s circle of friends and they seem to be enriching each others experiences at college just the way a parent hopes.
    Subcultures of alcohol abuse and sexuality issues are seemingly everywhere in society and Midd seems to be trying hard to cope with these problems. We as parents are obligated to do our best to help. I was happy to see news of the athletic teams discussion of homophobia; my own experience with college and high school varsity sports still remains that of a hypermasculine, testosterone-rich environment with an “us vs. them” viewpoint common among aggressive males. The hazing issues with the women swimmers at Midd a few years ago show that perceived power over others can intoxicate women as well. The more light that exposes these dark corners the better, but my son is not a varsity athlete.
    At this point you might say, “this guy has no clue what is going on with his son”, and you might be right. On the other hand as Dean you might be brought into contact more frequently with “meltdowns” while the students who are kind, industrious and busy with ordinary college life might cruise below your radar more than you would like.
    In the Middlebury Campus this week was an editorial about college “branding” that, among other things, cautioned against losing the existing small-college vibe of Midd in an attempt to reach out more globally; I second that concern from what I have seen so far as a parent. There have been changes in society and the pace of change seems to be accelerating; on the other hand I submit that kids’ basic needs remain more the same than different. Naturally institutions must plan for the future, but should not be stampeded into forgetting to reinforce what they already are doing very well.
    Your piece got my wife and I thinking and discussing the issues you raised; certainly it was successful, as that stimulation is what I assume was your intent. We trust that you will continue to change incrementally and with student input, as seems to be your general policy, and that Midd will continue to provide a humane setting for learning and personal growth.
    I note that you lied when you said your column would not be available online, but I accept that the comment was made in the spirit of trying to make a point. Thanks for your efforts on behalf of our offspring.

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  11. Anonymous says:

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