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Changes in Students over Decades

I’ve been in many meetings over the past few weeks with senior administrators from other universities. Our discussions often contain observations about how newer cohorts of students appear to differ from earlier ones.

Some of this discussion pertains to countable volumes of student services. For example, it is common across universities in the past few years to see an increase in student demand for mental health services. It’s common that student accommodations for testing and other educational activities are increasing.

It’s also common for faculty to comment on the constant internet connectedness of our students (and themselves), with jokes about students running into one another walking across campus as they stare at their mobile phone screens. Increasingly, there are observations that students are talking less to each other, as the grid intervenes in social relations more fully.

These latter comments are the casual observations of campus life by those who’ve been around for a while.

I began to wonder whether there were any consistent measures that might answer the question of how current students different from earlier cohorts. This was really an attempt to understand more fully the casual observations we all make.

Former colleagues have been measuring the attitudes and behaviors of high school seniors for some time, as part of the Monitoring the Future research program, funded by parts of the National Institutes of Health. Periodic self-administered surveys are conducted of high school seniors in a national sample of schools, attempting to represent the entire population of seniors. I downloaded statistics for the subset of those seniors who say they were planning to attend college after high school, for the year 1996 survey and the year 2012 survey. I perused the findings looking for attributes that show large differences between the 1996 cohort and 2012 cohort.

Perhaps one of the most interesting changes is the decline in the percentages of high school seniors who were currently working for pay – in 1996, 59%; in 2012, 41%. The survey has little detail on what kind of work for pay the high school seniors were engaged in, but other questions imply that the amount of experience in work settings for entering cohorts of college students is different now than in earlier years. With somewhat smaller differences, the 1996 cohort reports spending more time with adults (over 30) on a typical day than the 2012 cohort. Further, more of the 2012 seniors spend an hour or more of leisure time alone, in a typical day, than the 1996 cohort. A possible correlate of less work for pay (and the resulting less discretionary cash) is that the 2012 cohort reports less frequent social activities in “bars and nightclubs” than the earlier cohort. Relative to the 1996 cohort fewer of the 2012 seniors find a career built on self-employment as desirable. Obviously, the causal links among these different attributes are unknown, but one can see a consistent pattern among them.
One weakness of the time comparison is that the 1996 survey understandably has no measure of internet connectivity, but 74% of the 2010 seniors planning to go to college report social media use every day. Some of the greater reported “alone” time is probably filled with such activity.

With smaller portions of entering students having experience in work organizations, one might suspect that the lessons one learns in such situations need to be a more intentional part of the undergraduate experience. Some of the moves Georgetown is making toward experience-based, group learning built around real-world projects seem attractive in this regard. Working in teams, with requirements of rich interpersonal interaction, with a mix of adults and student collaborators, might be more valuable for the incoming stude

8 thoughts on “Changes in Students over Decades

  1. I wonder if the reduction of time spent in bars and nightclubs might be partly due to changing laws. Do fewer states now allow 18-year-olds to enter bars?

  2. Interesting comments. Wonder what would have happened if they had compared my cohort. I.e. Graduates of high school on 1964 in the dark ages. Just think! What would our generation look like ? We used typewriters, no cell phones, no computers except the Univac which think took up a whole floor in the science building and very few people used it.! ( the ones that did probably are now millionaires in Silicon Valley) any thoughts comparing that generation to today?

  3. This post resonates. In Georgetown’s Office of Fellowships, Awards, and Resources (GOFAR) we prepare undergraduates (sometimes graduate students) to compete for merit-based fellowships. Many of these prestigious fellowships are post-graduate opportunities to pursue work, study, research, or internships in professional spaces; fellowship selection committees look for individuals – students – who possess a range of skill sets.

    A well-developed, or developing, knowledge base is requisite. But to really succeed, a fellowship candidate ought also to have the ability to: write clearly and persuasively; respectfully engage difference, from people to ideas; think not just critically, but creatively and collaboratively; understand when there is a time for hierarchy and when there is a time for anarchy; and, to speak publicly- engaging, informing, and sometimes entertaining the audience.

    We find that some of the most talented, successful “fellowship candidates” (as if there were only one such profile) have had work experiences outside of the classroom, from flipping burgers to interning at the White House. And they bring these experiences – where character is built, values and principles are tested, and, relationships are formed and forged – to bear at the intersections of knowledge formation and personal, problem-centered agency.

    While GOFAR might be the smallest department on campus (although ROTC might challenge us for that distinction), we are open to collaborators interested in working with undergraduates to foster these vital 21st Century Skills.

  4. The recent NYT magazine article includes some stats comparing anxiety levels over time and they are worrisome.

    To quote one passage of particular concern, “In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.”

    The implications are significant for how students show up in class, how they behave outside of class, and how faculty and student services on campus are affected.

  5. Speaking of behavioral changes, I wonder whether the proportions of students at various stages of moral development (Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development) have changed over the decades. That certainly would affect the choice of strategies and tactics for motivating students during the education process (Kohlberg’s Stages being a construct that has been used by teachers when choosing among pedagogical approaches).

  6. ” Rich interpersonal interaction ” ? At the risk of once again returning to a violin obligato : Let’s not forget the invaluable team-work and interaction provided by performing arts. Incidentally, there was a time when theater was recognized as a major developmental tool by Jesuit educators … intimately associated with care for the whole person. In these days of heightened self-referentiality and reduced real-life face time, it may be time to re-member it.

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