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Davis, California

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A look at ‘Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student’

A new book entitled Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, published Sept. 24, narrows in on our “wired-in” college generation, highlighting both facts and commonly accepted truths surrounding today’s college generation.

Authors Arthur Levine and Diane Dean,  the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and a professor of education at Illinois State University respectively, compiled research taken from national surveys of students and site visits to 31 campuses across the United States. For California in particular, Dean and Levine’s research stretched to the coast of UC Santa Barbara, the San Diego Community College District, Pepperdine in Malibu and Mount St. Mary in Los Angeles, ranging from private, selective, to broader accessibility.

Generation on a Tightrope is the fourth installment to 40 years of prior research done by Levine.

Dean and Levine compiled thousands of surveys and individual student interviews, taking into consideration organizational climates, cultures, goals and institutions.

In a phone interview, Dean stated that the impetus for the just-released book was the events surrounding Sept. 11 and its aftermath; the authors were interested in learning about its impact and the changes it has incurred for individuals and society. In actuality, the authors made the realization, subsequent to the research process, that this specific event has had a minimal impact on society as a whole.

One key finding is that more than two-thirds of students (64 percent—up 20 percentage points since 1976) say the goal of college is to increase one’s earning power. Lane states that the idea of “earning power” can be attributed to a fault in higher education; universities once had the support of both the government and community, and have recently come under increased scrutiny. The message of the economic value of higher education has been advocated more, rather than reinforcing the positives of a good education.

Lane states that young people are a product of the forces that have shaped them; society has pushed the idea of higher education being  “for the money” rather than for the nonmaterial benefits.

“I would argue people coming of age in the United States have almost always been interested in ‘having a good job’ that empowered them to live a ‘comfortable lifestyle.’ However, because of the vastly changing economic structure that may play out in new ways, students are more focused on their ‘earning power’ than before,” said Joshua Hayes, UC Davis Ph.D student in sociology, in an email interview.

Today’s college students were born into a world already using mobile phones, email and the Internet; by the time they entered kindergarten, text messaging and smart phones were facts of life, according to their Summary of Key Findings.

Perhaps it does not come as a shock to the general public that today’s “traditional” college student (despite the ever present diversity on college campuses nationwide) is an example of our plugged-in and technology savvy generation. Dean and Levine learned through their research that an increased amount of students expressed discomfort in interacting with people via face-to-face communication. Dean questioned what campus administrators can do to make sure basic communication skills are being properly reinforced.

A common fault of the technological age, not mentioned in the book, is the increasingly shrinking space in response time to text messages or email, etc., Dean said. As a society, people are interacting at a greater pace and greatly diminishing the “cushion” time for making mistakes and errors, adds Dean.

In terms of academics, more than two in five students report grade-point averages of A- or higher—the highest proportion in more than 40 years—but 60 percent of all students believe their grades understate the true quality of their work, the press release entitled Digital Natives Not Ready for Reality stated. Dean and Levine’s research showcases that a heavy amount of grade inflation is present on college campuses; however, students maintain that their individual grades underestimate their capacities to perform well academically.

Grade inflation may not necessarily ring true for UC students in particular; the UC system stands at one end of the curve in Dean and Levine’s research. Dean and Levine’s book lacks clearly defined outlines in terms of college selectivity and acceptance rates that may explain the greater likelihood of a particular statistic in one school versus another, according to Dean.

“As an employee in the university, there is definitely a push for us all to be part of ‘a successful institution.’ Good colleges have good students. Good students are happy students. They’re also successful,” Hayes said.
The authors note staggering statistics in terms of students’ social lives, including: 47 percent of undergraduates say they have had a “hook up” or casual sex by the time they graduate, and 23 percent of students had unplanned or unprotected sex because of alcohol or drug use.
Dean also links the increasingly casual nature of “hook ups” and its relation to alcohol consumption with a decreased sense of true human intimacy. Hayes reiterates Dean’s statement noting that sex is being conceptualized in a different manner.
The picture of the “typical” college student in today’s day and age has become greatly fractured. Lane admits that Generation on a Tightrope is being interpreted as a negative representation of today’s college generation; however, contrary to popular belief, it is simply a reflection of today’s traditional college student, in comparison to previous generations. The authors aimed to explain how the current generation can best be educated to help them better prepare for the future.
“We have never had a perfect generation; with every new generation, a set of strengths, weaknesses, and challenges follow,” said Dean.
GHEED SAEED can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.


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