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Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Student

ISBN: 978-0-470-37629-4
256 pages
September 2012, Jossey-Bass
US $40.00 Add to Cart

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Education, Jossey-Bass


September 19, 2013
San Francisco, CA

Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Student

Data Show Contradictions in Lives of Today’s College Students, Changes across Generations

New Book Suggests How Parents, Colleges, and Employers Can Best Prepare and Engage with the Next Generation of Students and Leaders 

San Francisco, CA.—September, 2012—They are always in touch, yet weak in face-to-face communication. They receive inflated grades, but believe their GPAs should be even higher. They are professionally ambitious, yet clueless about proper decorum in the workplace.

These are just a few of the contradictions that today’s college students are living, according to new findings published in Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student by authors Arthur Levine and Diane Dean. Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University. Dean is an associate professor at Illinois State University.

“This is a generation with an average of 241 social media ‘friends,’ but they have trouble communicating in person,” said Levine, who has written three books tracking attitudes and behaviors of different generations over the past 40 years.

Levine and Dean also discovered other glaring conflicts. Among them:  

Though hit disproportionately hard by the repercussions of recession, and bearish on the future of the country (65 percent), current students are optimistic about their own futures (88 percent), and expect to be at least as well off as their parents (73 percent).

This pattern of apparent contradiction also plays out when it comes to grades. More than two in five students report grade-point averages of A- or higher—the highest proportion in more than 40 years—and 60 percent of all students believe their grades understate the true quality of their work. However, 45 percent of students have had to take remedial courses.

Cross-Generational Differences

The data also reveal significant changes across generations, including the fact that today’s young people are more tethered to their parents, less focused on political ideologies, and more racially diverse than any previous generations.

  • Unlike other generations that called home once a week, two out of five students (41 percent) are in touch with parents by phone, email, text or visit at least daily. One in five (19 percent) is in contact three or more times a day. College deans say overwhelmingly that the biggest change on campus since 2001 is parent involvement—and sometimes intrusion—on campus.
  • More than two-thirds of students (64 percent, up from 44 percent in 1976) say the goal of college is to increase one’s earning power. The percent of students who believe college is essential to formulate one’s life values and goals plummeted from 71 percent in 1967 to 50 percent today. Most undergraduates want college to help them develop career skills and knowledge and to gain a detailed grasp of a special field (74 percent).
  • This generation of students is not concerned with campus politics and is more involved in issues beyond the college gates. But they have little concrete knowledge about the world. Ideologies—left, right, and center—do not appeal to them; rather they are issue-oriented. When they act, their theater of action tends to be local, though they believe the issues that engage them have global implications.
  • Binge drinking and alcohol abuse have become the prime mental-health issue on campus, deans of students say. Nearly a quarter of colleges and universities (24 percent)—more at four-year colleges (31 percent) than community colleges (14 percent)—report rises in binge drinking since 2001. Between 2008 and 2011, a quarter (23 percent) also experienced increases in alcohol consumption.

“This generation of college students is inherently no better and no worse than other generations,” said co-author Diane Dean, who led the research effort. “Taken as a whole, however, the research indicates that these students will not be prepared for the world they will enter, and that parents, colleges, and schools need to make adjustments to better mold coming generations.”

(See the accompanying fact sheet, Summary of Key Findings, for the full scope of the data.)

Colleges Have Not Kept Pace

Some of the contradictions and disconnects may be at least partially attributable to the gap between students’ upbringing and the institutions they enter. Today's college students are the first generation of digital natives in higher education, but the colleges they attend remain firmly analog—as do the digital-immigrant adults whose classes and workplaces they find themselves in. Text messaging, smart phones, and other relatively recent innovations were already staples of life by the time they were children, and 76 percent of students say the establishment of the World Wide Web was the most important event in their lives—far overshadowing the September 11 attacks, the election of Barack Obama as president, or any other signal event. These 21st century students sit in colleges that are artifacts of the industrial revolution, and 78 percent of them say undergraduate education would be improved if their classes and professors made greater use of technology.

Recommendations for Parents, Colleges, and Employers

The authors offer strategies for parents to encourage students to be more independent, accountable, resilient, empathetic, and charitable, and to ensure that they set appropriate boundaries for student behavior. The book calls on college leaders to change the means by which their campuses educate the digital natives to match the ways that students learn most effectively. It urges campuses to introduce an enriched academic major, enabling students to explore the roots and values of their concentration, including its history, ethical foundation, standards, and limitations, points of agreement and disagreement, and how differences are resolved or accommodated.

The book also calls on campuses to introduce practical minors—courses that connect students to practical skills that can be used in the workforce—as well as internships and expanded career counseling beginning in the freshman year. Campuses also should compensate for glaring gaps in cultural and intercultural knowledge by revamping general education requirements to ensure that students take courses focused on communications skills, human heritage, the environment, values, and the individual roles students will play in life as friends, family members, workers, citizens, leaders and followers.

The book urges employers who hire the current generation of college students to provide everything from extended orientation to frequent evaluation, and to set explicit expectations, holding employees accountable for achieving them. The authors also suggest that employers sign up for a gym if they employ recent college graduates:

“The gym is a better stress reliever than alcohol, screaming, or kicking the dog,” Levine says.  “Recent college graduates respond even more poorly to yelling and sarcasm than the rest of us.”

In addition to data from four decades of national surveys of students and campus officials, Levine and Dean also bring to bear the results of campus site visits at 31 institutions chosen to represent the diversity of American higher education in size, control, location, degree level, demographics, and religious orientation. Earlier iterations of many survey items appeared in two books, When Dreams and Heroes Died (1980) and When Hope and Fear Collide (1998). 

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