Digital Natives, Analog Universities

The first generation of college students born into the digital age are straddling high-tech and old-school worlds ā€” and remaking higher education.

Davide Bonazzi

Probe the psyche of today’s college students and you’ll find a generation in the grip of paradox:

They’re connected 24/7 yet are poor communicators.

Consider themselves global citizens yet know little about the world.

Are the most diverse cohort in the history of higher education yet resist talking about race.

Reveal an unprecedented level of openness about sex — which along with drinking has remained an enduringly popular campus activity across the generations — yet report a flagging interest in dating and romance.

Consider this scenario: Two students meet at a campus party and later that night “hook up” — a hazy term that can mean anything from kissing to casual sex. The next day, in their own dorm rooms, they check each other out on Facebook, where one mentions an upcoming party without extending an invitation. They meet again, and another hookup ensues — no strings attached, no romance considered. After several similar encounters, they let people know they’re in a relationship, by posting something on Facebook.

Variations on this story line play out on most college campuses around the country, says Arthur Levine ’70, a past president and professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who currently serves as president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, a nonprofit that encourages leadership development in education.

“This is a generation that wants a partner, just like any previous generation, but they are not good at verbal intimacy,” says Levine. “So they seek out low-risk personal relationships, and the Internet makes it possible to diminish those ties even more.”

Recently, Levine co-authored, with Diane R. Dean, a fascinating portrait of today’s U.S. college student. “Generation on a Tightrope” (Wiley, 2012) is based on research the pair conducted between 2006 and 2011 at 270 campuses via surveys of 5,000 students and deans of students, as well as interviews with student focus groups, administrators and faculty on 34 campuses.

The book is the final installment in an unintended trilogy profiling three generations of college students. The first book, “When Dreams and Heroes Died” (1980), compared the students of the late ’70s with those of the late ’60s, Levine’s own generation. Late-1970s students “were a self-concerned, pragmatic and social generation of undergraduates who were optimistic about their personal futures and deeply concerned about material and career success but pessimistic about the country’s future,” Levine wrote.

A second installment, “When Hope and Fear Collide,” followed in 1998. In it, Levine described a generation “tired, torn between hope and fear of the future and committed to preserving the American Dream.”

With each book, he tried to pinpoint the events that defined that generation. Students of the 1970s said they were galvanized by Watergate, Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Students of the 1990s defied political and cultural labels, citing defining events as diverse as the Challenger disaster, the AIDS epidemic and the 1991 Gulf War.

In the following interview, Levine takes the measure of today’s undergraduates, the first generation to experience digital technology almost as a second skin.

He assumed they would identify 9/11 as the key event in their lives. This turned out to be a mistake, though an instructive one.

Arthur Levine '70
Mike Lovett
Arthur Levine '70

You began this research thinking that college students would define themselves as the Sept. 11 generation. What did you find out?

I was positive Sept. 11 had changed this generation forever. And not simply the plane crashes, but also the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, whether it was the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or tightening immigration.

So I was not only surprised but shocked — though I probably shouldn’t have been — to learn from our student surveys that the No. 1 issue for this generation was the World Wide Web and all the developments related to it.

The economy ranked second, Sept. 11 third, and the election of Barack Obama ranked fourth.

When did you realize the term “digital natives,” coined in the early 2000s, aptly describes today’s college students?

We asked students how they were adapting to the new wave of technologies. One student looked at me quizzically and offered a brilliant statement I thought could grace a bumper sticker or a T-shirt: “It’s not technology unless it happens after you were born.” And that is exactly right. It’s ridiculous to ask how you are adapting to the refrigerator, the car or the electric light. They have always been there.

This generation was born into a world in which Microsoft and Apple already existed. Texting, smartphones and the Internet were all available by the time they were born — along with every device and medium you can think of, with the exception of the iPhone, Facebook and Twitter.

In “Generation on a Tightrope,” you describe college students today as gatherers — broad and shallow consumers of information — and faculty as hunters, actively pursuing specialized knowledge.

Students come to us floating in a sea of information that’s broad and shallow, and we reward faculty on the basis of knowledge specialization, narrow and deep. Colleges and universities are meant to teach students depth, but instruction has to begin where they are. To do otherwise is the equivalent of attempting to teach students in a language they don’t speak.

What is the best way of teaching these students?

This is a generation used to interactive media. They’re much better with simulations and case studies; they like games and time in the field. Very little of our curriculum works that way. In classrooms, we use passive forms of learning — blackboards, whiteboards and textbooks — when we ought to be thinking about how we use the Internet in classrooms.

Students are very collaborative — what we might call “plagiarism” they might call “file sharing,” which I find deeply troubling. So, rather than relying on lectures, we need to lean more toward a problem- and project-based education, to capitalize on the way they work. And the way the world works.

We also need to explicitly define for students terms like “cheating,” “plagiarism” and “classroom decorum” — which they should have learned well before college — so there are no excuses for bad behavior.

Finally, liberal arts majors should be accompanied by practical minors, internships and a senior project integrating all three into something academically useful and valuable to employers.

Going to college during the worst recession since the Great Depression — not to mention paying for it — has made students more job-focused than ever before. What should colleges be doing as a result?

Students have never, ever gone to college to count the angels on a head of a pin. They’ve always gone to college because it leads to jobs. And higher education has been most successful when it has one foot in the library and one foot in the street.

But we need to help students think about careers within the context of the liberal arts. Many students are choosing a major not because they’re interested in the subject, but because it’s in a field in which jobs are plentiful and salaries are high.

Colleges have to put the career services office on steroids. Students ought to come into contact with career services starting during orientation, and that contact ought to be about finding a career, not a job. If we truly believe the liberal arts are designed to liberate people intellectually — and help them create a broad, satisfying life — a career is a very important part of that.

These are strategies. What about content?

Liberal arts students need a general education in the arts and sciences that provides the three C’s: creativity, critical thinking and continuous learning.

Critical thinking enables students to ask the really hard questions, to identify and solve problems. We need to teach creativity because the old answers don’t work to the extent they once did, especially in a world of constant change. And because the half-life of whatever students learn is getting shorter and shorter, they need to constantly renew their learning.

You say that digital natives are being taught by digital immigrants at analog universities. How is this reflected?

This generation expects to customize their education as much as they do their Internet choices, and there is a large gap between the way they learn and the way colleges and universities are organized.

Colleges and universities operate on a fixed calendar of office hours, semester hours, credit hours. This generation operates 24/7. When they send a message to a professor at 3 a.m., they are shocked when they don’t hear back right away — and professors are appropriately appalled. As one student told me, Amazon operates 24/7.

Universities operate largely in fixed locations on campus, but these students do their digital learning anywhere. Universities are provider-driven — they determine what you study in class. Digital natives are consumer-driven — they want to determine what and how they study.

The U.S. is moving from a national, analog industrial economy to a global digital economy, and every one of our social institutions — including media, finance, health care and higher education — was created for the former and needs to be refitted for a new, emerging society.

Davide Bonazzi

What’s changed among students since your previous studies?

They report greater satisfaction with student life, and are much more likely to say they have professors who care about them. I’m not sure why, though it may be because this generation is more comfortable with adults than their predecessors, and more likely to take advice from adults.

Another dramatic shift: From the time they were young teenagers, we’ve had a black president. This generation is much more comfortable with racial differences and interracial dating; they have more friends of different races. Of course, none of this says there are no racial incidents on campuses or that students don’t like to hang out with people who are like them — or that they want to talk about racial issues. It’s still a heated topic in this country.

There are more blacks, Asians and Hispanics on campus than there were the last time we did the study, and that means more heterogeneity on campus. We’re seeing more interaction between racial groups when students share the same income level. Does a black student from Weston, Mass., have more in common with a white kid from Weston, or does that student have more in common with a black kid from Roxbury? We’ve reached a critical mass of diversity within many groups, and that is encouraging interaction between groups.

Social protest has been a defining characteristic of college students for generations. What about this generation?

This generation of students have much less interest in college governance and campus activism than their predecessors. They are issue-oriented, not politically oriented.

They act locally, around personal issues. The fastest-growing forms of student protest on campus reflect broader trends in society: class — growing income disparity — and LGBT issues. Most students today don’t know how they’re going to repay their loans. Tuition and fees were the cause of most of the student protests on campuses where there was unrest.

In 2011, almost 7 out of 10 students surveyed said they were not politically active, and fewer than half said they would get involved in any way in any political campaign. Having grown up amid congressional gridlock and a series of embattled presidencies, most students don’t believe meaningful change is possible through the political system.

Your book describes a culture of indulgence and dependency.

This generation has been coddled. In school, everyone has won an award. They’re scared of risk, in part because they’ve never been allowed to skin their knees, to fail. On top of that, digital devices make it possible to avoid face-to-face interaction, which can be more personally risky.

Students use their parents to intervene with faculty — we don’t call them “helicopter parents” for nothing. One institution I studied actually created a dean of parents.

Grade inflation continues. More than two in five students reported an average of A-minus or better, the highest proportion in four decades. And remedial course work is on the rise, too.

Still, 60 percent of all students believe their grades understate the true quality of their work. They’re always being told “Good job!” They’re so used to approbation and success they don’t know how to face failure — and that’s one of the reasons they’re so dependent on their parents.

Are you showing your generational bias here?

I don’t think any generation is worse than the one that came before it. What these students lack is a sense of agency or autonomy — they need to be told what to do by the adults they work with. And in an age of extraordinary change, it’s very hard to tell people what to do.

Affordability is a huge issue in higher education today. How did we get here?

Colleges and universities engage in a number of destructive practices. It’s one of the few industries — health care is another — in which competition actually raises costs. Institutions compete not by offering cheaper programs but by having all the amenities the college next door has, and then exceeding that. If one college builds a new natatorium, it’s critical for the college down the block to build a better one.

They engage in cost-plus pricing. When they build their budgets, they figure out everything they want to spend and then figure out the price, rather than limiting spending to the money they have.

Colleges grow by accretion — they keep adding the new to what already exists. Most other industries grow by substitution — they get rid of things that don’t work anymore. Colleges don’t do that so well.

What do you predict will happen?

The public and the government are increasingly unwilling to accept the escalating cost of higher education, and the real danger is that if colleges and universities don’t exert financial self-control, the government will exert pressure to regulate prices by giving federal financial aid only to institutions that charge below a certain amount.

It’s in higher education’s interest to try to figure out how to resolve this issue now, before government acts. We’re going to see more congressional hearings, and more concern about higher-education policy and practice in the years to come. Higher education can be the leader in formulating the future — or the reactor.

Is the traditional tightknit residential brick campus becoming an endangered species?

It is. In 1900, America had a collegiate system that enrolled 4 percent of students of college age. Today, more than 70 percent of high-school graduates go on to some form of postsecondary education at “click,” “brick-and-click” or “brick” institutions. With this expansion, higher education has been transformed from an elite to a near-universal institution — the difference between shopping at Tiffany and at Wal-Mart.

What are the implications?

Universities and colleges are going to have to choose the category of institution they hope to become and build the epitome of that.

Schools ask themselves, “Should we create more global programs? Or MOOCs [massive open online courses]? Should we invest in study abroad, bring in more technology or build more buildings?”

These are the wrong questions. They should ask, “What is the purpose of this college?”

How does each model of education differ?

The purpose of the brick-campus model is to provide a highly personal education based on strong relationships between faculty and students, and excellent teaching. However, it’s quite possible to find brick campuses with huge classes, graduate students as instructors, distance learning and little contact between students and professors.

Carleton College, in Northfield, Minn., exemplifies the brick-campus model. In an intimate academic community, Carleton’s superb teacher-scholars offer a rigorous education. And it’s highly selective, as well.

Carnegie Mellon and MIT are successful brick-and-click campuses. They have residential students and a physical community, but they are also active in digital initiatives in the U.S. and around the world.

The online education companies Udacity and Coursera are leaders in the click model, offering MOOCs to anyone, anywhere, anytime, affordably or at no cost. Whether MOOCs will be successful remains to be seen.

This era is going to produce a new kind of university, and if I had to guess what it’s going to look like, I’d say it’s going to be universal-access, low-cost, digital and outcome-based.

Do you see other players entering higher education?

We’re going to see more knowledge organizations — museums, publishers, symphony orchestras and media companies — enter the field and offer courses to enlarge their audiences. Higher education is going to face increased competition from more-innovative sources that have more revenue and can make changes with greater speed.

What demographics are driving this revolution?

The growing number of students who aren’t 18 to 22, or full-time, and who don’t live on or near campus. They make up about 70 percent of students today. In fact, fewer than a quarter of all college students live on campus.

The new majority are students who show up on campus just to take courses, and then leave. They’re not using the gym; they’re not taking elective courses. That’s where the real growth is. California, facing a tidal wave of 500,000 new students and an insufficient capacity to accommodate them, will lead the way.

The Northeast, the Midwest and the mid-Atlantic states, however, have too many colleges and too few students, and we will see some nonselective, low-endowment private colleges close.

How well did Brandeis educate and prepare you for the future?

I had a wonderful experience at Brandeis. I was a first-generation college student at the front end of the baby boomer generation, and Brandeis opened up a world I could never have imagined. By the time I graduated, I had a heck of a career education, even though I was a bio major. And I met my lifelong friends at Brandeis.