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Why College and University Students Act the Way They Do and What We Can Do About It

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Award-winning University of Arizona at Flagstaff anthropologist Cathy Small became a college freshman again.

She wanted to know why so many university students don’t enter into discussions, get by with as little homework as possible, never go to the library, eat, sleep, cell phone, or text message in class, don’t visit their professors, cheat on examinations, plagiarize papers, and maybe worst of all, endlessly ask, “Will this be on the test?”

Using her real high school transcript, she applied to her own 20,000 student university and was accepted. She distanced herself from family and friends and moved into a dormitory where much younger students welcomed her. She took a full load of courses, ate in a dining hall and gave up her perks. She especially missed her parking pass!

Small wrote a controversial book about her experience under the pseudonym of Rebekah Nathan that I have not read (My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. Penguin, 2006). But my wife and I heard her talk about her life that year at an international conference on educational integrity at the University of South Australia this past December. “I was profoundly changed,” she reported.

Small’s experience convinced her that university students today are not radically different from previous ones, but that they face even more intensely three longstanding and overlapping challenges.

One of these is the “multiplicity of demands.” Promotional materials often portray students relaxing as they discuss the big issues of life in the shade of expansive trees on immense lawns or “having fun” with their friends. Few pictures could be less true, she declared.

Often, getting excellent grades in one major is not enough. A double major is a good idea, and so are “not being a drudge,” doing an internship, volunteering for community service, actively participating in campus clubs, showing some athletic and artistic ability and being well-liked.

Many students work long hours and go deeply into debt. Saving time, cutting corners, doing what is required and no more, eating on the run, getting little sleep and developing “maze smartness” is the name of the game. “Students are busy and stressed and so was I.”

The second challenge is that there is little sense of community, of “being us.” The university begins the school year with “welcome week” and then forgets that students exist. When they find time to call their own, they often retreat into their own “very private lives.”

They constantly communicate with friends and relatives elsewhere by using cell phones and email. They don’t go to campus gymnasiums and stadiums to enjoy sporting events with many classmates and faculty; they watch these games on television in their own rooms with the handful of friends with whom they do everything else.

Although students say they are multicultural, their little groups are almost always homogeneous in gender, race and social class. Taking careful note of what happened in a dinning hall over several months, Small observed that only 14% of white women and 10% of white men ate with “persons of color.”

There isn’t much loyalty or “code of honor” for the student body as a whole, only for those who are in “our group” and these friends will do almost anything to help each other make it. Letting your friends down is “cheating” more than breaking the institution’s rules. “How do we meet people? How do you find community?” a student from another country inquired. Small didn’t know how to answer.

The third challenge is the huge difference students perceive between their studies and “real life”. Far from talking about philosophy, religion, politics and such things outside of the classrooms, such topics are almost “taboo.” “It’s better not to go there.”

“What do you talk about with your friends?” Small asked on a bulletin board poster. Only a small fraction of those who responded said they talked about deeply controversial issues. Television programs, movies and bodily functions topped the list.

When asked to identify “who's the witch,” students consistently pinpointed those who sit in front, actively participate and get good grades. “Invisibility is the classroom norm.”

Yet when asked if they would take their degrees and leave school if they were given them for “doing nothing,” most students say “no.” They want to learn, but not in the way that they are being taught.

They want educational experiences that are more efficient and economical. They also want them to be more active, personal, technologically sophisticated and practical. Most students do not like courses with several hundred students and a host of teaching assistants.

Small’s presentation reinforced my longstanding conviction that thousands of students would choose small, excellent and affordable Christian colleges if they could, reserving large research universities for graduate and professional school.

Everyone agrees that SDA colleges and universities meet the first criterion. They are all small, none that I know of with anything near 20,000 students. Some whole SDA campuses have only as many students as several courses elsewhere!

People debate whether SDA colleges and universities meet the second criterion: excellence. It is my impression that a number of students arrive on our campuses less prepared for academic success than many elsewhere do, but that the ones who graduate four or so years later often do much better than expected.

Any school can graduate the best seniors if it admits the best freshmen. But to take many students with modest academic readiness and in four years enable a surprising number of them to hold their own with the graduates of the world’s most elite campuses is a huge accomplishment! This may be what we do best.

No one agrees that SDA colleges and universities meet the third criterion. They are not affordable!

One SDA institution now charges undergraduates who live and study on campus $28,176.00 each academic year. Wrongly assuming that these costs will not increase over the next four years, it will cost them $112, 704.00 to earn their degrees. This is at least twice what most of them can earn by working 20 hours per week during the academic year and 40 hours each week during the summer, with two weeks off for vacation.

This convinces me that we have made it financially impossible for thousands of students to study on our campuses no matter how much they want to and how academically qualified they are, unless they receive at least $60,000.00 from other sources or go that much in debt. In many cases the first is unavailable and the second is unwise.

We have created a viscous cycle. We do not have enough students because we charge too much and we charge too much because we do not have enough students. This is why some of our campuses are selling their most valuable assets. But this only delays the inevitable. Seventh-day Adventist higher education in North America as we now know it is over.

My own view is that, even though we did not know it at the time, our current troubles began at least forty years ago when student loans became readily available. This allowed us slowly to abandon the idea that our students should be able to “earn and learn” their own way through our undergraduate programs. It also allowed us to charge them more and more with hardly anybody feeling the financial pain for many years. If this had not happened we would have faced our fiscal realities much earlier, I believe. Also, when educational expenses are very high, even the smallest disappointments and difficulties on campus can prompt families to revisit their uncertainties about getting their money’s worth.

In 1967 or so I got a $1,500.00 loan from the Bank of America in Saint Helena, California that the government guaranteed and paid part of the interest. It made it possible for me to complete my studies at Pacific Union College on time. It proved possible to pay it off in a couple of years; however, many of our students today won’t be able to retire their undergraduate student loans that swiftly.

It is tempting in situations like this to create some commission that will impose a “solution” upon all our campuses, even though this may mean closing some entirely. Far better, I think, to rely upon each of them to settle their futures themselves, albeit in conversation with others. Some will be able and willing to implement drastic changes that turn things around. Others won’t. When boats are sinking, it’s usually best not to tie them together.

Again, Cathy Small’s research strongly suggests to me that thousands of young people would choose small, excellent and affordable Christian colleges and universities for their undergraduate degrees if they could, reserving large research institutions for their graduate and professional studies. Making this more possible is one thing we can do to make things better.

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