Who Are Our Students?

It's time to move beyond any single view of the student population.


January 28, 2015

It’s a cliché but true: Today’s postsecondary student population is the most diverse ever.

It consists of ever more non-traditional students: part-time students, commuter students, full-time workers, transfer students, and veterans, among others. It’s divided by gender, ethnicity, national status, race, and sexual orientation.

There are different ways to think about these student profiles. There’s the Hollywood perspective: Nerds, grinds, hell-raisers, jocks, frat boys, sorority girls, stick-in-the-muds, and campus activists, among others.

Every instructor is familiar with certain caricatures, which are meant to be descriptive rather than offensive: The “suck-ups,” the “whiners,” the “know-it-alls,” the “wall flowers,” and the “bullies” (who dominate class discussion).

We shouldn’t be wholly dismissive of this approach. It reminds us that classrooms have certain dynamics and roles that are independent of the individual students who are taking our courses. Effective instructors must adopt certain classroom management techniques designed to mute potential conflicts and to take advantage of students’ strengths.

Thus one must figure out how to motivate the “wallflower” to speak up; to discourage the “bully” from intimidating classmates; and  to nurture a sense of community among extraordinarily different personalities.

Then there is a generational approach. Pioneered by Beloit College, this approach focuses on students’ mindsets. It reminds us that each generation of students brings its own cultural reference points. Its weakness is that it tends to ignore the fact that students are not of a uniform age or social, economic, and cultural background. Nevertheless, it provides a useful reminder that “our” students are not “us.”

Most have grown up in very different economic circumstances (far more competitive and insecure than the one that Baby Boomer professors faced); that search engines, social media, and immediate access to online resources have always been a part of their experience; that they bring a consciousness about diverse identities to the classroom.

Another way to think about our students is sociological. We might define our students by age, ethnic, national and racial background, by gender, by place of residence (on campus, in a fraternity or sorority, at home, or elsewhere); by level of employment; by level of engagement (part-time or full-time); by family responsibilities; by enrollment pattern (continuous or discontinuous, transfer or non-transfer); by financial status; by level of parental education), among others.

A sociological perspective tends to underscore the differences among students, minimizing those elements that they share in common: Their student status, complete with their dependence on grades, their uncertainty about their personal future, their ambiguous status on campus as not yet fully independent adults.

Yet another approach, emphasized in a series of reports by the Parthenon Group, stresses differences in student motivation: Between those who are unmotivated (who attend college because it’s the thing to do and they have no better alternative; those seeking a “coming-of-age” experience (often emphasizing extracurriculars, intercollegiate athletics, Greek life, and informal socializing); those with a professional or career focus; those who are highly cost-conscious; and those degree-completers who seek to switch careers or improve their life prospects.

My take-away is simple: Once we recognize that students come to college with differing interests, backgrounds, talents, motivations, and goals, we should be all the more motivated to embrace the goal of personalization – an idea that has already made a huge impact on marketing, journalism, and manufacturing. 

We might think of personalization in terms of learning pathways: with some students given the opportunity to pursue pathways that are accelerated, guided, optimized, or competency based.

Or we might think of personalization in terms of the nature of learning opportunities, with some students provided with more opportunities for experiential learning, whether in the form of internships and coop experiences or service learning opportunities or study abroad or other kinds of outside-of-class, authentic learning experiences. 

Then there is personalization of content: With readings, experiments, and assignments more closely tailored to student interests. 

But the key take-aways: There is no single student profile; if we are to truly fulfill our access and success missions, we must recognize that many of our institutions have multiple subpopulations with distinct needs and aspirations.

A one-size-fits-all, standardized curriculum is out of step with the times – and with student demographics.

Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.


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