Are we relevant for today’s students? As a university president, that’s a question I ask myself every day. And as the person at the center of a 100-plus-year-old residential liberal arts college, it’s a question that is particularly pressing as the liberal arts and the traditional college experience itself come increasingly into question.
If you spend long enough reading about Generation Z—young people born after 1996—you can start to feel they are a species apart from older alumni and our readers, many of whom are so-called baby boomers.
It’s said that the young men and women of Gen Z send more than 100 text messages a day and have a communication attention span of eight seconds. Workwise, they assume they will cycle through innumerable jobs in their lifetime, with one recent study reporting that 83 percent of today’s students believe that three years or less is the right amount of time to spend at one’s first job; fully a quarter feel they should stay at their first job for a year or less. For those of us who can count on one hand the number of employers we’ve had over a career of several decades, Generation Z’s job-hopping ways fairly boggle the mind. How does one read a résumé filled with stints lasting nine or 11 months?
So, yes, Gen Z may have its quirks. As the first true digital natives they are spending upwards of two hours a day on YouTube and finding and sharing information over Snapchat and Instagram, leaving Facebook to the generation of their parents and grandparents who believe sharing photos of what they cooked for dinner and how many miles they ran at the weekend is the purpose of social media.
Tediously often, I hear the complaint that “today’s students” don’t know how to write as well as their predecessors. Texting is blamed. Similar claims have been made consistently through the decades. But, according to at least one study described in a higher education journal I read, errors in writing have not actually increased in the last hundred years. Our students’ writing may be different enough today to be inscrutable to some of us, but it’s not necessarily worse. And it could even be that with spelling and grammar checkers and online writing help always accessible, students today have a better understanding of the process and complexities of writing.
I would argue that young adults are not so very different from the generations that preceded them and that college life, despite what you may have heard, is not dead.
When I read that Generation Z is made up of idealistic young men and women who want to change the world and are passionate about social justice issues such as world hunger and climate change—and when I meet these people among our own student body—I am reminded of the generations of the ’60s and ’70s as college students. When I hear that Gen Z shuns authority and conformity and values authenticity and empathy, I’m taken back to my own campus culture. And when I learn that students today still see strong value in going to college, with more than 80 percent believing a college degree is important to a desirable career and nearly two thirds feeling the benefits of college outweigh its costs, I know our mission continues to be relevant.
It’s not hard to argue that a college education will always have a role in society, but what I’m proposing is that our particular model—the residential liberal arts college—will also continue to survive because we offer something that young people will always need, a place and a space to mature.
Huge psychological growth occurs from the ages of 17 to 25. Those years are a critical period in human development; that’s when we develop independence and form our core concepts and beliefs. And I submit that the best way to make the journey from teenager to adult is in social groups where we are in residence with our peers. In a nurturing yet challenging environment with mentoring, support, intellectual engagement and reasoned feedback, and the opportunity to take risks and make mistakes, people derive what they need to travel a sometimes daunting but rewarding journey to adulthood.
Students seek us out today at the University of Redlands because they see an alignment between their desire to create their own educational path and the freedom a liberal arts education such as ours offers. They see the breadth of our education and the global perspectives they can learn, and they know that is what they need if they are to make the difference in the world to which they aspire.
Our community annually welcomes a new group of travelers who, like those of every generation, are full of promise and at the start of a complex odyssey of learning. With its sophisticated understanding of multiple viewpoints and its insistence on creating meaning, this is a generation of dreamers and activists, change makers, and visionaries.
Ralph W. Kuncl, PhD MD
University of Redlands