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