The Students the Lists Leave Out

The emphasis on the uniqueness of each incoming class in annual lists of student worldviews perpetuates the assumption that the college population is mainly composed of recent high school graduates, writes Hollis Phelps.

October 24, 2017

A new academic year always brings with it a host of reminders of how the incoming class differs from previous generations. This fall, for instance, Beloit College released its Mind-Set List for the entering Class of 2021 as a way to emphasize “the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college.” Pithy in its lightheartedness, the annual list provides a snapshot of the “changing worldview of each new college generation.”

BuzzFeed has periodically tried to imitate Beloit’s otherwise distinctive approach but attempts to point out that the differences among each new crop of students abound. An article published on Pearson’s website notes, for instance, that the “new generation of students entering our classrooms … have never known a world without the internet. They’ve had smartphones since they were barely teens.” That requires, the article goes on to suggest, changing the way we teach, to meet students in the digital environments in which they have supposedly always lived.

And that assumes, of course, that they want to meet us as well. It’s also common to remind us that today’s students spend much more time on leisure activities and themselves than their studies, work or familial obligations. In sum, today’s students are radically different from previous generations.

For those of us who teach, this genre of articles provides a ready reminder of the generational disconnect that we may often feel with each new crop of students. Speaking from my own experience, I try my best to keep up with broad cultural shifts as a means to cultivate awareness of where my students are coming from. But many of my go-to pedagogical examples, at least when teaching younger students, often fall flat for the simple reason that my students don’t get them. To reference one item on this year’s Mind-Set List, many of my students don’t remember Bill Clinton’s presidency; for them he’s primarily “Hillary Clinton’s aging husband.” The list can be a helpful, ready tool for faculty members looking to connect with their students, and it comes with a guide that can serve “as the basis for one-on-one chats, and at other times for class discussions and even personal essays.”

Nevertheless, one of the unintentional consequences of this emphasis on the uniqueness of each incoming class is that it perpetuates the common assumption that the college population is made up mainly of 18- to 22-year-olds, give or take a year or two. That is, it assumes that “this year’s college class” is mainly composed of recent high school graduates. As this year’s Mind-Set List mentioned, “Students heading into their first year of college this year are mostly 18 and were born in 1999.”

I’ve been teaching full-time for the past seven years, and I’ve certainly taught my fair share of students who fall under that category. Indeed, save for a few notable examples, that’s the picture of college painted in various media and present in the popular imagination. Going off to college, that is, is an almost obligatory rite of passage for those able to do so, and we professors are charged with the responsibility of helping them transition into adulthood.

The problem, however, is that’s not an entirely accurate representation of what the landscape of higher education now looks like, even if most institutions continue to shape their public identity and allocate many of their resources to cater to the 18- to 22-year-old set. The fact of the matter is, across the board, students over the age of 25 constitute a significant percentage of the undergraduate population -- somewhere around 40 percent -- and that number is expected to increase. Moreover, the majority of students enrolled at colleges and universities across the country are often referred to as “nontraditional.”

Although definitions of what constitutes a “nontraditional” student vary, the National Center for Education Statistics notes that such students usually have at least one of the following characteristics:

  • delays enrollment (does not enter postsecondary education in the same calendar year that they finished high school);
  • attends part-time for at least part of the academic year;
  • works full-time (35 hours or more per week) while enrolled;
  • is considered financially independent for purposes of determining eligibility for financial aid;
  • has dependents other than a spouse (usually children, but sometimes others);
  • is a single parent (either not married or married but separated and has dependents); or
  • does not have a high school diploma (completed high school with a GED or other high school completion certificate or did not finish high school).

Such students account for almost three-fourths of the undergraduate population, meaning that the “traditional” group that receives the bulk of attention is “the exception rather than the rule.”

I don’t want to come across as a curmudgeon. Things like Beloit’s Mind-Set List are fun, and it’s always important, as other articles likewise suggest, to be reminded of generational gaps. Nevertheless, how we define the “entering Class of 2021” -- or any class -- matters. Representing “the lives of students entering college” primarily in terms of the so-called traditional student leaves out the majority of degree-seeking students -- and thus ultimately paints a false picture of what higher education looks like in the United States.

Moreover, privileging the 18- to 22-year-old student population as the norm sends the message, albeit subtly, that those who fall outside that category don’t really belong, that they’re not really part of that “entering class.” Indeed, as Needham Yancey Gulley has argued, the distinction between traditional and nontraditional students -- a distinction unintentionally replicated in the Mind-Set List -- reinforces this message. As he puts it, “Referring to our students as nontraditional puts them at a starting line behind other college enrollees -- not only in their sense of self but also in the minds of fellow students, faculty members, administrators and policy makers. Using such language basically says, ‘We are going out on a limb by letting you attend college, because this place is not really designed for you, and you really should not be here.’”

So, while Beloit’s Mind-Set List and the like may give us a window into “the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college,” they only do so for a select portion of the student population. The fact of the matter is that many generations and corresponding worldviews are already present in any given entering class. And while it’s certainly necessary to bridge generational divides, given the actual landscape of higher education in this country, there are more divides than just one.


Hollis Phelps is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Penfield College of Mercer University.


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