Today’s college students are radically different from the students occupying college classrooms even a decade ago. The expansion of education that propelled widespread positive change through American communities in the 20th century has reached beyond high school, and more people than ever before understand the importance of postsecondary education in all its forms.
For broader participation to lead to positive outcomes — for example, the completion of degrees without huge debt burdens — students must have good experiences in the classroom. This is especially important yet incredibly difficult as the new economics of college are compromising the time, energy, and money that students and many of their professors have to spend on quality learning.
These are the core challenges of college today — and yet they are too often ignored. Instead, symptoms of those problems dominate air time, as the stereotype persists of "academically adrift" "snowflakes" "coddled" by their universities. Consider the recent essay by Nancy Bunge, "Students Evaluating Teachers Doesn’t Just Hurt Teachers. It Hurts Students," which takes on student evaluations. Bunge contends the "unearned arrogance encouraged by the heavy reliance on student evaluations helps produce passive, even contemptuous students who undermine the spirit of the class and lower its quality for everyone."
Her enemy appears to be sites like the often-lamented Rate My Professors, but her piece also attacks the students themselves, and reinforces a set of assertions largely drawn from one influential yet extremely narrow study, Academically Adrift,by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The limited learning lamented by the authors is said to be linked to insufficiently challenging instructors, and according to Bunge those instructors are not demanding more of their students because they want to get good grades. She cites a Chronicle survey in which faculty members claim that students are "harder to teach" these days. The overall narrative suggests we should feel sorry for the faculty. If only they could have more-engaged students to teach.
There is an alternative explanation. Today’s college students are the most overburdened and undersupported in American history. More than one in four have a child, almost three in four are employed, and more than half receive Pell Grants but are left far short of the funds required to pay for college. Rather than receiving help from their parents to pay for college, even the youngest college students often have to use their loans to pay their parents’ bills. ...
We need more, not fewer, ways to listen for the voices of students reflecting on education. We need more, not fewer, ways to include students in conversations about the future of teaching and learning in college. These conversations cannot begin by sending a signal to students that their voices don’t matter. ...
As educators, we need to lead the way and design our pedagogical approaches for the students we have, not the students we wish we had. This requires approaches that are responsive, inclusive, adaptive, challenging, and compassionate. And it requires that institutions find more creative ways to support teachers and prepare them for the work of teaching. This is not a theoretical exercise — it is a practical one.