Opinion

College students today: overconfident or just assured? Regardless, they are our future.

Those graduating from college soon will be in charge of our institutions. We should give these Millennials every support we can, despite their sense of entitlement.

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Last spring, I retired after 33 years on the faculty at Central Washington University. When people hear that, the most common question they ask me is whether students have changed over the years.

My answer is: Yes, in several ways that are important to both teachers and employers as the first of the Millennial generation (born between 1983 and 2003) graduates from college and enters the workforce.

Students are certainly more confident – some might say overconfident – than they used to be. They have a sense of their own importance, and why not? They’ve been praised and protected by their parents more than any generation in history.

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They’re close to their parents. A recent survey shows that 30 percent of parents talk to their children every day. Half engage in “helicoptering,” hovering over their children to mediate conflicts with peers and professors. About 10 percent even admit to writing their childrens’ papers for them.

Students are also more demanding than they used to be. They have a sense of entitlement. A few will tell you bluntly that they want good grades because they’re “paying for them.” Even the more diplomatic ones often seem to think the faculty should satisfy them, not the other way around. Despite the cliché, they don’t understand “no.” To many, it means “not now,” or “let’s negotiate.”

Today’s students don’t respond well to criticism. They want to work with positive people who mark their successes, not failures. In the 1973 movie “The Paper Chase,” there’s a scene in which an imperious law professor calls on a student who is unprepared for class. He hands the student a dime and tells him to call his mother and say he’s probably never going to become a lawyer. True, the comment would have been cruel even then. But if any professor tried it today, I’m pretty sure a complaint would be filed. Today’s students demand respect – and they know their rights.

They’re not very respectful themselves, however. They don’t always mean to be that way; they’re just not very mindful of their audience. They don’t realize the effect their behavior has on others. You wouldn’t think, for example, that you’d have to tell university students not to text-message or, check their e-mail during class, or leave before class is over, but it’s become standard practice

Today’s students are easily bored. Raised with 24/7 access to information on the Internet and surrounded by high-tech gadgetry, it takes a lot to impress them in the classroom. Lectures seldom do it; even Socratic dialogue and group discussions don’t always work. Games are good. Students want learning to be a social activity and one that is immediately rewarding. They like material to be concrete and specific – practical, rather than theoretical.

And today’s students are more materialistic than they used to be. For 40 years, UCLA has published an annual survey of incoming college freshmen. In 1970, 80 percent of freshmen thought “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was an important college goal. By 2005, nearly 75 percent thought it was important to be “very well off financially.”

To be sure, in their minds these new students are not overconfident, but assured; not demanding, but assertive; not impatient, impulsive, or materialistic, but driven, fast-paced, and goal-directed. And in fairness, they do have a lot of those positive qualities.

They’re probably more open and honest than students before them. They value authenticity. They’re not afraid to voice their opinions, even if sometimes those opinions are uninformed. Few subjects are taboo with them, and they don’t have much tolerance for political or social correctness.

They like (indeed crave) personal recognition, but they’re group-oriented and prefer working in teams. They like shared leadership, and they’re skeptical of formal authority. Many are strongly oriented towards volunteerism (albeit on a short-term, project-by-project basis), and give time to community service.

Their most unique feature may be their sense of equality. Discrimination isn’t dead on college campuses; there are still cases of intolerance, but today’s students may be the first generation to widely embrace the ideal that issues such as race, religion, or gender do not, by themselves, make a difference in people.

Finally, they’re optimistic, which isn’t easy given the increasing violence on campus and in the outside world they face. Students graduating today will enter the worst job market in 25 years. They’ll work longer, have less job security, and have fewer benefits than their parents or grandparents had. They’ll face a society that’s increasingly polarized, with few shared values, less sense of community, and hardly any authority figures that can be absolutely trusted.

Yet overcoming all, most students remain upbeat. They expect to find a job within a few months of graduation and live a happy, productive life. They see the future as theirs to control. They believe they’re vital to the nation.

So what’s the message for the rest of us?

It can be annoying to hear this new Millennial generation brag about their power and potential, especially when it comes at the expense of the older generations. But the truth is that our future is tied to theirs.

Many are already graduating from college and working in our companies. They’ll soon be in charge of our government, business, professional, and social institutions. We should give them every support we can. Heaven knows, we don’t want them to fail. Understanding how they work is the first step.

Corwin P. King is professor emeritus of communication at Central Washington University and former chair of the Communication Department. He also taught at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

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