The Kids Are Alright

Look out administrators, professors, and facility managers; here comes Generation NeXt. Armed with every kind of electronic gadget, these students have high expectations of their chosen schools, an unprecedented sense of entitlement, and the unwavering support of mommy and daddy. Their suite at home may hold a queen-size bed, private bath, and game room. Even if their digs aren’t quite so deluxe, they’re bred to believe that their opinion is as valuable as anyone’s in the room. How can you attract and retain these finicky consumers?

Born during a baby bulge that demographers place between 1977 and 1997, this group of students and potential students are 60M strong, more than three times the size of Generation X, and the biggest thing to hit the American scene since the 72M baby boomers. They go by a host of taglines: Generation Y, Generation NeXt, Echo Boomers, or the Millennium Generation.

“Eighty-four percent of college students spoke to their parents yesterday,” reports Dr. Mark Taylor, M.S.W., Ed.D. director, Taylor Programs. “Half of them want to move back home after graduation.” And why wouldn’t they? According to Dr. Taylor, this generation of kids relates to and identifies more with their parents than any generation in the last 50 to 70 years. “It’s because we boomers didn’t want to be authority figures. We wanted to be friends.”

Apparently friends are fun. Today’s parents give their kids lots of options and tell these kids that their opinions hold equal weight with their own, according to Dr. Taylor. As a result, Generation NeXt controls the TV remote, helps make important purchase decisions, and boasts a high level of self-esteem. They expect learning to be engaging, just like in their Sesame Street days. And they are wired.

According to the famously e-mailed Beloit College Mindset List for the class of 2011, put out every year by Tom McBride, professor of English; Gayle and William Keefer, professors of the Humanities; and Ron Nief, director of public affairs at Beloit College, this group of kids never rolled down a car window, have always had the Internet available as a research tool, and, because they are tethered to their cells, probably never made a private phone call. They also think very differently than generations past. “They are always doing what I call a ‘utility calculus,’” explained Dr. Taylor. “That means that they are constantly calculating ‘what’s the benefit versus the cost?’ If the cost, or the workload, is too high and the benefit not immediate or obvious, they’re not going to do the task.”

Service to Community
Although they think differently, they don’t necessarily think only of themselves. The members of this generation are aware of the upgrade in lifestyle from what their parents experienced. Not only have they been able to grow up with the constant presence of technology, they have had more opportunities to be involved as leaders and in service to the community.

"This generation is more service-oriented," said Kay Robinson, coordinator of Student Involvement and Leadership for the Ohio Union at Ohio State University. "We notice most of the students attending Ohio State have participated in service programs before they even attend college."

This generation is increasingly aware of and engaged in volunteer work, community service, and philanthropic activities. About 67 percent of students said helping others who are in difficult situations is an essential or very important objective, according to UCLA's annual survey, “The American Freshman — National Norms for 2006." This report also found that 35.2 percent of undergrads think it's important to become leaders, and 42.5 percent believe it's important to influence social values, which is the highest that measure has been since 1993.

In response, colleges and universities are integrating service-learning components into their curriculums in order to engage and retain service-minded Gen Y students.

According to Youth Service California, at California State University, more than 135,000 students at 23 campuses performed a total of 33.6M hours of community service annually. California Campus Compact estimates that 20,205 students at ten private colleges participate in community service or service learning. California’s community colleges report 2,283 AmeriCorps members; of them, an estimated 1,027 are between the ages of 18 to 25, in 47 programs at 35 campuses.

Shaping Facilities for Millenials

Yet this group of students is thinking ahead. According to a study published in early 2006 by David Cain, Ph.D. and Gary L. Reynolds, P.E., 79.6 percent of students rated “strong major in field of interest” as essential or very important to them when picking a school. The rest of the top five characteristics include excellent teachers (77.7 percent), preparation for a career (77.2 percent), accessible professors (70.6 percent) and customizable education (70.9 percent).

Number six on that list: overall quality of campus facilities (66.9 percent). So, what do students want on campus? “Every institution is constantly trying to raise the bar,” reports Frank Hayes, Shawmut Design and Construction. “Creating a comfortable lifestyle at school has become very important.”

Four areas on campus are receiving the most attention. The first is residence halls. “The old concept of colleges as monistic institutions with simple cells for students and their books has been carried through to the 1970s,” said Larry Bacher, vice president for Higher Education, Gilbane. “Now a push has been made for more of an apartment living model, with private sleeping nooks, limited sharing of the bathrooms, and food prep areas.”

One of the most valuable amenities a school can offer in the residence hall is bandwidth. “Off-campus students quickly learn that they can get lots of bandwidth cheaply if they move back,” said Bacher. “That’s important, whether they are downloading research or something from iTunes.”

Common rooms would include lounges, dedicated study space, retail space, and perhaps even some classrooms. “Including classrooms in a residence hall is an older concept that’s regaining acceptance now,” Bacher continued. “It helps break large schools down into more digestible chunks and create an academic community of scholars.”

Also more digestible are the options in the dining hall. “The cafeteria with four lines leading to the same food choices is gone,” said Hayes. “Now dining halls feature scatter-style stations with lots of variety. Some of them look like a Los Vegas buffet.” Vegetarians no longer need to gamble on limited food choices, either. “I went to a panel discussion at Skidmore College, and three out of the five student representatives were vegetarian,” recalled Bacher. “They really enjoyed the expanded choices.”

However this format means a revamp of the foodservice area and re-education of the foodservice staff. The once central kitchen now gives way to several small, open-prep areas. Behind-the-scenes workers are now front-and-center with the students. “It’s more fun and festive,” said Bacher. “And it helps attract students to the meal plan.”

Libraries and student unions are also changing to meet Generation NeXt’s needs. “All the student services are bunching up in the student union again,” argued Hayes. “Admissions, financial aid, post office, and meeting rooms are grouped under the union’s roof.” Libraries are less about housing books and more about helping students find the right research. “We built a library with study carrels and no one uses them,” said Bacher. “Instead, the kids are working together at tables in break-out rooms, and the librarians who know how to parse through mountains of data have become very valuable.”

Tuning in to Technology
Electronic information delivery has also made its way to the classroom. “Today’s students prefer information made available on their time as a podcast or Webcast,” said Dr. Taylor. “Then class time can be devoted to working with that information, creating an active learning environment.” Even during a standard lecture, electronic media should be used. That means classrooms must be designed with integrated technology and appropriate sightlines in mind.

In the Cain/Reynolds study, students rated technology capabilities twelfth on the list of essential or very important institutional characteristics. That’s up one space from the year before, and promises to move higher in the future. “If a campus is not as wired as a student’s home, it brings the entire institution in question,” said Bacher.

Online classes are gaining in popularity. But the once-intended tool for distance students has a dirty little secret. “Over half of the online population is students already living on campus,” reports Dr. Taylor. “That wasn’t the original intent.”

But the lesson is that nothing can be stagnant anymore. Here’s to whatever comes next.