Higher Education's Generation Gap

by Winona Weindling

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.
A national survey conducted by Blackboard and UPCEA in 2017 asked recent 18 to 35-year-old students how they viewed their educational journeys. Their report showed the similarities and differences in how recent students view higher education, but raised questions about how their opinions may differ from those who attended college longer ago.

To gain a more personal perspective, HigherEdJobs spoke to individuals from three different generations. Conchetta Jones, a member of the baby boomer generation, received a bachelor's and master's degree from Governors State University; Patrick Riccards, a member of Generation X, received a bachelor's degree from the University of Virginia; and Matt Robinson, a member of the millennial generation, received a bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee and is a current graduate student at Harvard University.

What were your expectations for higher education?

Jones: I went back to college because it was something I really wanted to accomplish. My closest friends went off to college and I didn't. I always felt like I missed out on something special. I was a teen mom and wife, and my education was put on hold for years. When I made the decision to go back and get my degrees, it was for self-satisfaction… I love to learn and I love school, so I expected to learn new things that would make me qualified for the field that I wanted to work in. I also expected my degree to help me to make more money.

Robinson: I thought college was necessary. I didn't have great expectations, I was the first in my family to go to college and I was the oldest sibling, so my vision for college mostly came from the picturesque scenes in movies. But I expected that I would go on to graduate school and college would be the preparation for the next step. I also expected this to be the time where I find out what it meant to be an adult.

Did the reality of college match your perceptions?

Riccards: I entered UVA believing that I would go to law school after majoring in economics, what it seemed most arts and sciences graduates at UVA wanted. I found econ boring, but enjoyed my government classes, so I actually started as a government major… My Intercultural Communications professor took an interest in (or pity on) me. He could see I was in over my head. He worked with me. He invited me to social events at his home. He then convinced me to add RCS as a second major. It was the best thing I could have done, and I never expected it.

Robinson: I had gone into college sure I was going to medical school. I ended up getting my major in biochemistry and applying to med school, but I still had no idea what I was going to do and ended up deferring my admission. However, college is bigger than academics. I grew up a lot. It gave me the opportunity to see the world; I went abroad and lived in Italy for 8 months. College challenged me to push myself and push my own thinking.

Do you believe college was worth the cost?

Jones: I had to take out loans to attend college and I can honestly say that some of the expenses were too much -- especially the fees for things that I didn't use on campus and the cost of books... let's not even talk about that. And for all the good that my degree did, I really do think that college is too expensive. I know a lot of people who have college degrees who cannot find jobs in their field of study, or who are not working in their field of study.

Riccards: I believe the "college experience" was worth the cost, absolutely. I was far from the ideal student… But I recognized there was cache in having a UVA degree, particularly in the DC area… An undergraduate degree from UVA is great. But college was worth the cost because of the internships I received and the experiences I gained at The Cavalier Daily [the student newspaper].

Robinson: I didn't pay anything for college. The state of Tennessee is very generous in terms of scholarships. In terms of cost, what I put in was four and a half years of hard work, and that was worth it.

Did you attend graduate school? If so, what were your expectations?

Riccards: Over the years, I have applied to (and been admitted to) at least three different graduate programs at different universities, but each time I ultimately opted out of actually enrolling because I couldn't see the cost (time and money) benefit for it… What I have done the past 20-plus years is not something you can learn in a classroom. It requires life experience.

Robinson: I'm currently studying Education Policy and Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I expected to come here and gain hard skills. I expected grad school to be career preparation -- the skills you need to learn, the people you need to know. I've been blown away by the resources at this school and the wealth of experiences of people at this school.

How do you think your views of higher education differ from those of other generations?

Jones: I felt it was expected to go to college and get a degree to be successful; a lot of students today don't have that same view. They don't think a college degree is important to their success.

Riccards: I mentor a lot of students from UVA, and I'm always amazed at how much they know and how further along they are in their lives than I was when I was 18 or 20. So many college students today are entering college with the skills and experiences that I found in my internships or at the college newspaper. Some of them are going to college for the networking experiences, knowing early on that wearing the signet ring is the asset they are seeking. Students are also realizing that success doesn't require going to an Ivy or a Public Ivy, particularly with the cost of college. While I was at UVA, many looked down at those who transferred in from a community college. Today, that is the norm. And it is a terrific way to save money while building credits and finding what your college passion may be.

Robinson: I think my generation views higher education as more of a universal right. Even the most basic jobs in today's market require a college degree. If that's an expectation for so many jobs, higher education needs to change.

The above interviews show that millennials have many of the same perceptions of higher education as members of previous generations, but some differing views as well. Since millennials are more educated than previous generations and this trend is continuing with Generation Z, institutions of higher education should keep these changing perspectives in mind. The Blackboard and UPCEA national survey found that in order to adapt to the needs and expectations of current students, colleges and universities should offer a variety of learning options, deliver on return on investment, make financial aid information readily available, and advertise opportunities for growth outside of the classroom. By instituting these changes, colleges and universities can continue to grow and show their worth to prospective students.