Skip to main content

Columbia Business Monthly

When it comes to higher ed, each generation has different skills, personalities, and expectations

Jan 08, 2019 10:55AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By  D'Michelle P. "Doc" DuPre, M.D. 

There have been many articles and much debate about the state of higher education today. Why is it so difficult to attract and retain students?

To understand this, we need to look at the students who are seeking degrees. Who are they, and what do they want? This is a far more complex question than most of us realize.

Long gone are the days where education is sought just for the sake of education. There are at least four generations in the market for higher education today: baby boomers (1945-1965), Gen X (1965-1981), Gen Y, or millennials (1977-2000), and Gen Z, which is still defining itself. The problem is that each generation wants and expects something different from their educational experience.

The main characteristics of baby boomers are self-assurance and independence. They have a healthy skepticism and a “what’s in it for me” attitude. Boomers have a strong work ethic and for some, their self-worth comes directly from their professional achievements. For learning experiences, boomers want to learn the subject in depth before moving on to another topic. They like competition and it’s a big motivator; using badges or points are good, but the real motivator is intrinsic. Because they’re focused, they can spend more time on assignments than the more recent generations. They tend to view education as a birthright and are not the most techno-savvy. Many have acquired technological skills, but it is not inherent in their makeup.

Gen X-ers are techno geeks, independent thinkers, and self-reliant. They want a flexible work and learning environment. They have high job expectations; they’re pragmatic and tend to think globally, seek life balance, and are skeptical of boomer values. They focus on results and have a strong sense of entitlement. Their motto is to work smarter with greater output but fewer hours. They work to live and want to build a portable career. Gen X-ers have assimilated technology. To them, technology is what they can hold in their hands. Motivation comes from forgetting the rules and doing things their way. They view education as a way to get where they want to be.

Core values for millennials are things like achievement and civic duty, diversity and competitiveness. They consider themselves members of a global community, are highly tolerant and sociable, and very techno-savvy. They have never lived without computers and change things by using technology. Their focus is global and technology is an integral part of everyday life. They value individuality. They’re motivated by learning, but want immediate results. They thrive in a collaborative environment, want continuous feedback, and are very creative and achievement-oriented. Education must provide engaging experiences that develop relevant and transferable skills. This generation prefers to learn in teams using multimedia, while being entertained and excited about what they’re doing.

What does this diversity mean for higher education?

Essentially, it means that without a drastic change in mindset and approach, traditional institutions of higher education will not be successful in attracting, engaging, and retaining students. The notion of “cookie cutter” educational experiences or degrees, where one size fits all, is incompatible and perhaps even antithetical to current and prospective students. Give them what they want, and they will come.

So, what is it that students want? As we’ve seen, that depends on the generation, but overall they want relevance. As educators, our institutions must think outside the box or, better yet, forget the box. We must meet the students where they are and with the skills, courses, and type of learning innovations they expect.

Many students and parents think education is a very costly expense and want it to pay off in terms of relevance and a good job. That is not to say that liberal arts degrees are not worthwhile. In fact, the American Association of Colleges and Universities asked employers what they value most when making hiring decisions, and 93 percent said that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems… is more important than an undergraduate’s major. Ninety-five percent say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity of continued new learning.”

Liberal arts gives students a well-rounded world view, better writing and communication skills, cultural sensitivity, and an appreciation for diversity in people and cultures. Students need these basics but not at the expense of salient courses and skills in their chosen career. Just as important is the delivery method and the teaching style that will keep these students engaged.

Dr. D’Michelle P. "Doc" DuPre, M.D., is the program chair of the Master of Arts in Criminal Justice and the program chair of the BSN Nursing Programs at Columbia College. She has been a forensic consultant for CNN and has written two field guides for law enforcement. In her spare time, Duper writes mystery novels and cookbooks, and she is a certified chef.