Assumptions and Stereotypes

A few days ago, Beloit College published their annual “Mindset” list describing how this year’s incoming college students differ from previous groups of students.  The list is humorous and largely fills its role of reminding college and university faculty and staff of how culture continues to change and shape the expectations of our students.  While I acknowledge that the list is not intended to be taken completely seriously, I think that we can see a serious message if we look behind the list and it’s not the message the authors meant to convey.

This list says more about those who wrote the list than the students they are purporting to write about.  Moreover, it reveals assumptions that many of us make about college students: too many of us still think that the typical college student is just out of high school and enrolled full-time for four years before graduating and moving on.  That may be accurate on some campuses but at many colleges the student body is becoming increasingly “non-traditional:” older, part-time, and unlikely to graduate in four years.

With respect to Beloit’s list, we first observe that students beginning college now may not be in the “Class of 2014.”  The 4-year graduation rate for all first-time first-year students who matriculated in 2001, the most recent year for which these data are available, is 36.2%.  In other words, just over a third of the students* who began college graduated in four years.  Of course, Beloit College has a much higher 4-year graduation rate of about 75%.  But if we want to apply this list to all students at four-year institutions then maybe we title it the “Class of 2016 (We hope!)” list.

Second, this list assumes that the students matriculating this year are young, probably fresh out of high school.   This is probably the case for Beloit as it is a small, residential college with only a few transfer students and virtually no part-time students.  But the picture is different for many institution.  Nearly one-third (29.3%) of all college students are 25 years of age or older.  Further, of all of the nation’s students at four-year institutions, over one quarter (26.5%) are part-time students who are typically much older than full-time students.  (Edit: NPR has more about the growth of non-traditional students in U.S. higher education.)

This discussion fits the topic of this blog in at least two ways:

  1. These assumptions about students are the same assumptions that lead so many to believe that all college students are technologically savvy.  That’s not a fair assumption and it’s simply not true.
  2. It’s possible that these assumptions are particularly widespread among student affairs professionals, particularly younger or newer professionals whose experiences (residence life, student activities, greek advising, etc.) have only been with traditional students.  This is understandable given their experiences but it’s out of line with the reality of American higher education.

I admit that I’m a bit of a curmudgeon.  But we make too many assumptions about students and this list is an excellent example of a set of those assumptions.  We have to fight our natural tendencies to stereotype and make assumptions lest those tendencies continue to lead us astray (Irma Pelt gets what I’m trying to say).

* – Graduation rate is a tricky measure to interpret because of how it’s defined.  Basically, it doesn’t include all students, particularly transfer students.  But good or bad, it’s a widely-used measure so we’ll go with it for now.