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The arrival of a new generation offers higher education an opportunity for renewal and revitalization.

As Generation Z, the cohort born in the mid- and late-1990s and early 2000s, has begun to arrive on college campuses, we might ask: Are our campuses ready?

Facile generalizations, superficial stereotypes, and pejorative caricatures about Generation Z abound. That they can’t live without their digital devices. That they’re hooked on digital entertainment and social media. That they’re entitled, self-absorbed narcissists and overly delicate, fragile flowers.

We often hear that this generation is more financially driven than its predecessors, that it craves authentic experiences, and prefers self-learning, applied learning, immersive educational experiences, and technologically-mediated instruction to faculty-driven education and passive learning. We are also told that these students are more likely to see college as a means to an end, as a gateway to a rewarding career.

Some terms associated with Generation Z are positive, like tech-savvy, but many are profoundly negative, like pampered, praise-hungry, and hypersensitive.

Blame for this generation’s purported ills has focused on a number of supposed perpetrators:

  • Intense, overly protective parents who sought to shield their offspring from risk and the consequences of their actions, constantly took their emotional temperature, and sought to prevent them from being bored.
  • A misguided self-esteem craze that sought to eliminate any threats to a child’s self-confidence and self-regard; and
  • Addictive social media that have contributed to negative body images, lack of sleep, a decline in face-to-face social interactions, and fears of blow back for thoughtless or even innocent behavior.

Every era worries about the next generation, and negativity about Generation Z is nothing new.

But some things have certainly changed.

Most of today’s students’ parents – regardless of social class and ethnicity – have embraced a set of values that the sociologist Annette Lareau terms “concerted cultivation”: an achievement-oriented form of childrearing that involves more hands-on involvement, increased spending on enrichment and other supervised activities, heightened sensitivity to children’s safety and their interior, emotional, and psychological state, and a greater willingness to intervene with institutions and authorities on their offspring’s behalf.

To be sure, tiger, snowplow, and lawnmower parenting behavior is more prevalent among the more affluent. But the underlying values are widely shared. This appears to be partly due to growing income inequality, which has pushed parents to give their children a boost, for instance, by helping with homework or college application letters or intervening with teachers and administrators.

At the same time, the mismatch in expectations between high school and college has grown. Even though high school workloads have risen in recent years, grades, too, have climbed sharply, and as a result, fewer students have receive much critical feedback prior to entering college. In turn, many find themselves unprepared for college professors’ higher expectations regarding performance, sustained reading, argumentative writing, and the ability to manage one’s own time.  

What do we actually know about Generation Z, and what are the implications for instructors?

1.  A growing proportion of students experience economic stress.

The number of students from low-income backgrounds has grown substantially in recent years. But even those from middle-income families worry a great deal about college costs, the burden of student debt, and whether they’ll get a good job in an unstable, highly competitive economy. 

It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to dismiss such concerns as non-academic. Rather, faculty need to design curricula that address students’ career ambitions, discuss the relevance of the skills and knowledge they present, open windows into career options, and incorporate more authentic, real-world projects into their classes.

2.  They lead very busy lives

Whether they are combining their studies with jobs, family caregiving, a host of extracurricular activities, or socializing, today’s students are time-stressed. A great challenge for our educational institutions is to design learning experiences that accommodate the pressures on students’ time. 

Synchronous online classes, hybrid classes, practicums, field-based experiences, mentored internships, and weekend, evening, and intersession classes are just a few of the ways that colleges and universities can better meet student needs without diluting rigor or compromising quality.

3.  Campus diversity greatly enriches the student experience but it also creates acute challenges.

Today’s campuses are the most diverse ever. Ethnic and racial diversity is the most obvious development, with virtually half of Generation Z identified as nonwhite, compared to 39 percent of millennials and 30 percent of Gen Xers.  But diversity takes many other forms as well: It’s economic, political, religious, and sexual. Students today, for example, are far more likely to know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. It also means that more students arrive on campus with uneven academic preparation.

Diversity means that students will inevitably confront attitudes, behavior, and styles of self-presentation and argumentation very different than those encountered earlier. It also means that faculty must be well-prepared when highly controversial or politically-charged topics arise in their courses and that student affairs offices need to ensure that less affluent and first-generation and transfer students feel a genuine sense of belonging on their campuses.

4.  Students are far more likely than in the past to report being depressed, anxious, lonely, and plagued by stress.

The Number 1 issue reported by many members of Generation Z involves mental health, with fully 70 percent of respondents to a recent survey reporting that anxiety and depression were a major issue among their peers. This does not necessarily mean that the actual incidence of mental health problems has increased. For instance, research finds little evidence to substantiate the popular claim that social media has contributed to a decline in students’ mental health by amplifying criticism of young peoples’ behavior or leading them to negatively contrast their personal experience with their peers’.

It may be that Generation Z is simply more comfortable with the language of mental health, more willing to acknowledge psychological distress and learning disabilities, and less inhibited in discussing mood disorders, panic attacks, or suicidal thoughts and behavior. But this does mean that faculty are much more likely than in the past to encounter students who will bring up mental health issues and must figure out how to respond appropriately.

The arrival of a new generation of students to campus has forced colleges, time and time again, to adapt. This was the case after World War II with the massive influx of veterans and the sharp increase in women and African American students in the 1960s and 1970s. The more recent inflow of Latino/a, immigrant, international, and low-income students, working adults, and students with disabilities now presents higher education with a new opportunity for renewal and revitalization.  

But this will require institutions to be proactive. Colleges and universities must anticipate the challenges they will encounter. Faculty and administrators must reach out to new student populations, listen to their words, and respond in ways that the students find meaningful. Institutions must redesign curricula, delivery modes, support services, and the campus experience itself to meet the needs of a shifting student population.

Colleges, like businesses, must constantly adapt in order to keep up with the pace of change.

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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