Interpreting characteristics of incoming students

For the roughly 24,000 Millennial Generation students attending U-M this fall, the Internet always has existed. There always have been charter schools. And caller ID always has been available on phones.

For more than half their lives MTV has not shown music videos but instead has focused on reality programs. TV and radio stations have never been obliged to air both sides of an issue, and FOX News as well as other stations with points of view always have been around.
Like fellow millennial students, Claire Fields, a sophomore English and linguistics major from Grand Rapids, has never known a world without cell phones. (Photo by Austin Thomason, U-M Photo Services)

These are among perceptions that shape today's college students, born since 1980, and defines them in comparison to Generation X (1965-80) and the Baby Boomers (1946-65), say social scientists.

And because understanding those influences helps faculty, staff and administrators effectively to serve these Millennial or Generation Y students, U-M's Malinda Matney closely studies their style through surveys conducted by the university and by national experts.

"I work in an administrative role and a research role," says the senior research associate for the Division of Student Affairs. "I lead several research projects working with a variety of units to translate information to shape educational offerings, and to shape policy."

"We not only do our own research, but we look at research across the campus and across the nation," Matney says. "As students come to orientation we begin a first-year survey, to get a sense of who they are. We're collecting that for this year's students."

Matney presents findings before faculty and staff at ongoing public presentations and through online and written materials, including "What's on Our Students' Minds" published four to six times annually by Student Affairs.

So while general traits of Millennial students have been identified since they began entering college in recent years, Matney continues to gauge year-by-year changes. These are sparked currently by evolving social media formats, she says. "We've found that students are leveraging these tools, and Facebook in particular, to supplement their efforts to do course projects, collaborative studying, and discussion of future courses," Matney says.

Before Millennials came Generation X, which grew up during the California Proposition 13 tax-revolt era. Gen X is known to be generally more cynical and conservative than both the Millennials and the Baby Boomers. Matney says studies show that in 1995, 35 percent of college students (Gen Xers) identified themselves as liberal, while 43 percent of college students (Millennials) identified themselves as liberal in 2008.

Over the same period, college students who said same sex couples should be able to marry rose from 62 to 73 percent.

While Gen X was raised without much parental supervision — the term "latchkey kid" was coined when they were young — Millennials were very protected, Matney says. "They are excellent students, but very scheduled," she says. A popular slogan during their early-'90s youth was, "Have you hugged your kid today?" Millennials are comfortable with high-stakes testing — they've had lots of it — and are used to having all their recreational activities scheduled.

But because adults have run their sports and games, Millennials have not learned lessons children once learned through negotiating rules with each other, dealing with small injuries and navigating conflict. "They are itching for a student-authored group experience that the students take leadership of," Matney says. "It's both exciting and terrifying. That's a lot of what they're seeking in college."

Through current educational offerings, administrators and faculty are responding to this need. "I think for our current faculty and staff understanding that these students want that great experience but they want that bridge to it," Matney says, adding that while Millennials bring a vast array of content knowledge, they need help to build leadership skills. "They may have to be educated in how to perform independent research, and how to lead civil conversation in a study group," she says.

"We are often discussing conflicting ideas in the world, and how to navigate those conflicts," Matney says. "These are very new skills for our students, but that's part of the exciting work that most of us at the university came to do."