College Student Life

Understanding the experiences of today’s college students and their parents

What Do We Know About Today's College Students?

Striking findings about today's millennials! Read More


As a member of this generation, I couldn't agree more. So many students enter post-secondary education with the goal of skills, training, knowledge, etc. to earn that next position. So many students exit post-secondary education with a sense of dissatisfaction, as if the product (and end-result) that they were sold wasn't necessarily what they bought. This comes at a high cost too, primarily a lack of self-esteem from students who think that are quite marketable but are really turning out like every other person that is applying for the same positions.

I think that it's important for students to take these skills and harbor them in unconventional, untraditional ways. Those ways are left up to the individual, and those ways hardly ever result in the roles they thought they'd be playing on the other side of that bachelor's degree.

Higher Education: an assemby line?

Sometimes I wonder if higher education is becoming an assemby line where students rush through it or are rushed through it and they simply don't take the time or have the time to enjoy and appreciate the process. When some of us were in college in the 1960s, the annual Freshman Survey showed that "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" was a very important goal for us. Today that goal has fallen in the Survey to be a rather insignificant one.

Should we be worried? If so, how do we go about restoring depth and breadth to the higher education process?

Like a sailboat being tossed in the breeze, going whichever way the wind blows.

I think the subject title could describe how many potential students approach college, before even setting-foot on campus. Most people in my generation (the Millenial Generation) these days have the goal and the desire of going to college. It is approached to us at a very early age by parents (I would argue more parents these days have basic college degrees than ever before), educators, and the pressure amongst friends who are considering the same thing. However, during this process of just trying to be admitted to an institution, there isn't much time available for reflection and self-introspection about what it all means and what it will provide. I remember being asked once during high school "Do you approach college to further your education or for job-training?". I honestly had no idea how to answer that question because it was something I had never considered before. I thought college was just, well, college.

Of course, some kids have better paths set before them than others and come into higher education understanding exactly what they want to do. But, I would say an overwhelming majority of kids go to college to get a degree of any kind, whether they see themselves in that career or not, and to "enjoy the ride", so to speak. College is sensationalized from very popular media such as the 1970's movie "Animal House" and through many other resources. I would also argue probably the resource that is valued most on gathering this experience is social media, in particular Facebook. Kids see how much fun they could be having and want to experience it. To make one point clear, though, this opinion is in no ways absolute and plenty of kids head to college with the ambition of education, maturity, and forging life-long learning. I just feel with the connection to college happening earlier in life than ever before, it is difficult for young kids to see the bigger picture.

To conclude, I think, in a way, it has almost become an assembly-line process of kids going to college because they feel they must, even if they are unsure about what their ultimate goal is. The job market, friends, family, and the first-world culture as a whole have embraced this mindset as a majority, in my opinion. Some kids enter college just looking to have a fun and meaningful experience and just sort-of take things as they come.

I wouldn't say we need to be worried because higher education is still in its essence an invaluable and life-changing experience for everyone who passes through its doors. But, I would say, having kids really focus on what college is all about at a younger age would be more effective in priming them for what is to come and to allow a chance to mature sooner rather than later when faced with life's many choices. The lengthened time allowing for further introspection and reflection, in my opinion, couldn't be understated in its importance to help kids make informed and meaningful choices in deciding how to make higher education purposeful for them.

Entrenched in a Fixed Mindset, contributing to sexual escape?

I really enjoyed this article, think it was a great way to start the blog and open the discussion up. Justin I agree with what you are saying as well.

This generation views college as a means to an end, not as the source of intellectual enlightenment and personal growth that it once was. While once the source of intellectual awakening, where students would feed off the institutions contagious vibrations, it is now clear that everyone has alternative priorities and their focus is elsewhere.

There is disconnect between students intellectual capacities and their academic institution. Yet they are optimistic. Although Levine was off about the mechanisms behind the observed higher GPAs. Not a reflection of intelligence, but rather definitive evidence of student’s modern know-how of the academic system.

Detachment from the work and effort required to be actively engaging in academics stems from this generation distain for obligation and commitment. Hard to pinpoint when it began, perhaps through the rise of the internet and with it the barriers to normal face-to-face social interaction, the current generation in college today maintains a "fixed mindset" as Carol Dweck coined it. A fixed mindset, is one that perpetuates the status quo. It creates tunnel vision, where perspective is limited and you view your abilities as fixed traits, and your talents unstable.

Human beings are naturally curious creatures, and even with a fixed mindset where we have attempted to bottle up creative power, and intellectual capacity it has found opportunities to channel itself. While people in the fixed mindset feel burden as they perceive others to measure them by setbacks and mistakes. “They [even] feel measured by the very fact of exerting effort. They believe, like Billy Beane, that if you have true ability, you shouldn’t need a lot of effort” (Blackwell, et al., 2005).

As Carol points, "their interest in being right [takes] strong precedence over their interest in learning... often [they] reject valuable learning opportunities if these opportunities hold the risk of unmasking their shortcomings" (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Hong, Chiu, Dweck, Lin, & Wan, 1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998).

Ironically, in an attempt to exert the most minimal amount of effort, yet get the grades which generate the greatest amount of self-justification, our generation of fixed minds has leaked its creative potential and ingenuity on how they how about getting the high GPA Levine mentioned.

For example, certain professors also often have fixed mindsets and having taught for years have become complacent and compose their exams through the compilation of previous years text questions. Well for anyone who is part of a Greek organization or something similar, this material is readily accessible. These test grades thus reflect an individuals ability to memorize answers and recognize their corresponding question when they take the exam, they need not even know what any of it means.

Evidence now supports that “mindsets are fostered by the kind of feedback students get from the people who evaluate them: their parents, their teachers, and presumably their coaches. Specifically, the mindsets are fostered by a focus on the person (e.g.,talent or ability) as opposed to a focus on the process (e.g., effort, learning)” (Dweck & Lennon, 2001; Kamins & Dweck, 1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998). When adults evaluated students on their abilities—even if the evaluation is positive–it put students in a fixed mindset (Kamins & Dweck, 1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998).

The fixed minded generation unintentionally channeled their creative potential again while minimizing their effort exertion towards academics. They learned far in advance which professors would tested only off of material on their power points, and would plan their course schedules so they would only have to take one or maybe two classes a semester, for which they would actually need to study for.

Yet, their plan created a feedback cycle compounding on itself as students would get As in the pre-requisites but lack the basic understanding required for upper-level courses. As the lose interest, they lose confidence. As difficulty mounts, their commitment declines, but ultimately all important endeavors are prone to setbacks, as failure is an inevitability.

"Constantly focusing on proving your ability, a poor performance casts doubt on your deep-seated ability and can undermine your confidence. Someone else’s good performance can undermine your confidence" (see Butler, 2000). As Justin said, there is "primarily a lack of self-esteem from students" in this generation.

The instability a fixed mindset devastates a persons confidence. "When you have only a certain amount of a valued talent or ability, [it] leads people to want to look good at all times. You need to prove that you are talented and not do anything to contradict that impression, so people in a fixed mindset try to highlight their proficiencies and hide their deficiencies" (see, e.g., Rhodewalt, 1994).

Perhaps due to the rise and dominance of e-Socialization via AIM and texting this generation was unable to develop the interpersonal social interactions in the later stages of adolescence that they lack the ability to engage in mature conversations that are certain to abound in a more setting requiring more maturity such as a university. This generation has overtime only become more embedded in their fixed mindsets, closely adhering to their comfort zones, fearing what would happen if they over stretched themselves to learn new things.

The question is, is it too late for those in this generation to acknowledge their fixed mindset, gain the courage to admit their failure, and have the courage to move forward from it? Its hard to say because it is not known how to encourage an awakening in someone. However, while this generation is largely dominated by individuals with a fixed mindset, there are some who possess growth mindsets.

The growth mindset of intelligence leads to significant gains in grades and/or achievement test scores. For persons with a growth framework they not only take charge of improving their skills, they take charge of their motivation as well. Additionally, for those who focus on growth, it is far easier to sustain your confidence (see Blackwell, et al, 2005; Grant & Dweck, 2003; Mueller & Dweck, 1998; see also Jourden, Bandura, and Banfield, 1991; Martocchio, 1994; Wood & Bandura, 1989).

Now this is perhaps a stretch but, with the decline in utility for moral values, prolonged emotional detachment, lack of intrinsic passion, in addition to the problematic face-to-face social interactions, one could hypothesize that the combination of these factors was enough to play a causative role in the rise of perspicuity along with the loss of emotional attachment by this generation. The observed increases in high-risk sexual behavior and unprotected sex amongst monogamous, non-emotionally involved partners, could be a consequence of the fixed minded individuals, who had bottled up their curiosity may have channeled it toward their sexual activities.

Reading through this thread,

Reading through this thread, I think it's easy to get worked up over how students of the millennial age have, educationally speaking, lost sight of the ultimate goal of a college degree. The negatives will always attract the most attention and while I do think a gap has existed and expanded between expectations of college, I don't necessarily think it's the end of the world.

Albeit, a majority of college students today certainly entertain the idea of college as "job training," but there are certainly a reasonable number of students who view it oppositely. I also don't think that there's anything necessarily wrong with viewing college as job training, but I think the problem stems from the fact that the balance between perceptions of job training and educational enlightenment has shifted. We can't blame students for approaching their college careers from a pragmatic view. It simply means that the educational system (both in high school and at the collegiate level) needs addressing and has failed in communicating this other purpose of higher education.

It isn't surprising to hear from students themselves, parents, and faculty alike that students who are coming out of high school don't have the time (and arguably in certain instances, the maturity) to discern a feasible path for their undergraduate pursuits. Combined with the pressure of simply going to college, as well as the even greater sense of disappointment that we, as a society, give off when a student chooses not to go to college (because of lack of preparedness or any other reason). Something about these attitudes is obviously damaging to students and only reinforces unnecessary pressure, as well as the ideal that if you don't get a college education, you're going no where in life - which is certainly not the be all, end all to the debate.

I agree that students' perceptions of college need to be addressed, but I would also stress the fact that these perceptions are influenced and impacted by a multitude of factors, both positive and not so positive. Clearly, this paradigm shift in how we approach higher education will not occur overnight (seeing as higher education institutions are inherently resistant to change), but if we expect anything to change, in any real, observable way, we must first address that which we can't see - our perceptions, expectations and attitudes regarding institutions of higher education, their purpose, who attends these institutions and for what reasons, as well as the external factors, imposed by ourselves as well as other individuals/groups of people in our lives.

Whose future is it?

College students, according to the article, feel confident about their own personal future but not about the future of society. That’s an interesting disconnect, as if one were to say, “I look out over the horizon and it looks grim, but my personal future looks bright.” I wonder how people reconcile that discrepancy in their head.

I think that might be part of the lack of introspection that the other commenter Ricky states. I believe there’s a pervasive thought or mindset, “If I just go through this process [college] I’ll come out on the other end with everything figured out.” Yet that is rarely the case without the necessary reflection of figuring out what you want to do and why.

As a mentor and career coach to college students I have found Ricky’s analogy of a sailboat being tossed in the breeze, going whichever way the wind blows to be very accurate. Most of them don’t want to be set adrift, but have never had anyone teach them in how to set direction.

Why might that be the case? Perhaps it’s the way an elder generation raised the Millennial Generation and the product of an educational system (primary and secondary) that has more an assembly line, production-based mentality v. one that elicits deeper, critical analysis and introspection for independent decision-making. Maybe independent decision-making muscles are atrophied as a result. “Wait, I think I can interview with your company, but let me check with my mom first.”

Whose future is it? Helicopter parenting gone awry.

I hold great hope for this awesome generation (which I’m part of the older end of it), yet there are some life lessons yet to be learned and some of them are only learned after skinning a knee when growing up. But now such wisdom may be learned later in young adulthood with a bloody nose or worse. The idea of protecting a generation from a skinned knee and giving a trophy not based on merit doesn't work, I think it’s backfiring. It has enabled. Indeed, there are many mindsets that exist and are perpetuated that do not serve people well.

Again, I hold tremendous hope for the Millennial Generation, yet as Ricky said, a major key to unlocking that is spending more time to make informed, meaningful and purposeful choices.

2012 Entering Freshman Survey

For those of you who might not have seen this yet, here is the report from the Annual Freshman Survey for those entering college this past fall:

Your reactions and discussion?

More Insight

This piece offers more insight into the Millennials and their resiliency:

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may quote other posts using [quote] tags.

More information about formatting options

Edward F. D. Spencer, Vice President Emeritus for Student Affairs at Virginia Tech, retired after a 42-year career in administration and teaching at Virginia Tech and the University of Delaware.


Subscribe to College Student Life

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.