Who Are They, and What Do They Want?


This was originally released in September 2014.  Given the challenges that universities are facing with the COVID-19 pandemic that may extend well into the future, the times are a barometer of purpose. 

I walked into a room full of freshmen the other day and we exchanged blank stares.  They looked at me as if to ask, “Who is this guy?” Simultaneously, I was asking myself, “Who are these people and what do they want?”  All wired up with satellite access, bloated with hope, fueled on high-octane expectations, befuddled with fear and accumulated anxieties of every dimension, and armed with smart phones that sing and dance to radio waves of 800- to 2400-megahertz, about a foot long:  The helm from which they navigate to the portals of the world.

Two questions – First, who are these people looking at me?  Here is what I know:

There will be fewer of them.  In 1996 the national undergraduate enrollment was slightly over 12 million students. It is projected that by 2021 it will be about 20.5 million students, but over the past five years growth has been flat.  Between now and 2021 freshmen enrollees will decline in many states.  The surge is over while the number of universities grows.   Institutions and students must change expectations.

They are getting older, becoming more female than male, and more part- than full-time, all according to the U. S. Department of Education. They are becoming more diverse according to Brookings:  In 2018 the population under 18 will be mostly non-white.  And in 32 states the number of high school graduates is decreasing.  According to Pew, almost 79% of the Hispanic high school graduates enrolled in college compared to 67%  of their Anglo compatriots.

They are more heavily mortgaged.  Over two-thirds of the four-year baccalaureate degree holders think their loan debt is a significant burden according to the Harvard Institute of politics.  Families are much more inquisitive about costs. I talk with potential freshmen and parents or guardians almost weekly and nearly every family is concerned about how much money students must borrow to complete their studies. Debt burdens are increasing at about 6% per year.

Not surprisingly, those with the lowest incomes spend less on education, have lower out-of-pocket costs, borrow more, and get fewer scholarships and grants. If education is a way out of something, it seems increasingly less likely to be way out of poverty. It used to be that education was simultaneously a way out of ignorance and a way into a modicum of prosperity.

On my most frustrating days at a university, it seems neither.

They want jobs. Nine in 10 freshmen will tell you that they are attending college to get a better job. Many of my colleagues will talk about the development of human capital, a cultivated mind, the ability to think critically, and social and cultural appreciation as the primary motivators for university education. The students want jobs. And, who says these two concepts regarding education are mutually exclusive?  Every year, for the last three years, jobs, training, and earning a living, are the top student reasons for attending college, and there is growth in every category on a year-to-year basis.

The concerns and desires of these freshmen are well-founded, as too many can’t find good jobs according to the Center for Labor Market Studies.  One in three wish they had just gone to work, not school, and these are college graduates, not those freshman wanting to be graduates, a status far fewer than half will reach in four years.

This group of people looking at me don’t pay much attention to marketing schemes, by high-priced, smooth-as-silk advertising campaigns that trump up the ease with which a degree is obtained and the value that it has.  According to Nielsen people listen to people. Nine of ten trust other real people rather than disembodied forms of marketing and advertising. Word of mouth.  Direct experience.  Know thyself, and those whom you put your trust in.

Look at me, I will look at you, and we will talk.

That is who these freshmen are in spite of what it seems, and universities that substitute slogans, process, procedure, rubric, or marketing messages might forget the only thing that matters in a learning environment.

The second question, what do they want?

Simple, to trust and be trusted.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at http://walterwendler.com/.

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