Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student

Colleges stuck in
educational systems developed for an earlier era-analog,
national and industrial-need to adapt to prepare these students
for 21st century lives.


Moveable Type: Students Unprepared for Uncertain Future

Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student by Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean (Jossey-Bass 2012) is Levine’s third with the same subtitle. It’s not that he kept getting it wrong. “Today” and students keep changing.

Levine based When Dreams and Heroes Died (1980) on research done in the 1970s. He found a generation of students without heroes, more focused on material gain than activism or community, a big change from the 1960s.

In the 1990s he found a major generational shift on campus, reported with co-author Jeanette S. Cureton in When Hope and Fear Collide (1998). Propelled by hope and fear, students sought ways to make a difference in the world.

Generation on a Tightrope is based on surveys of 5,000 students and student affairs professionals at 270 colleges during 2006–2011, conducted by co-author Diane Dean. It is a composite portrait of the first generation of college students that grew up in a digital, global information economy.

They found that students arrive on campus lacking the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed for productivity and success in a fast-changing world. Colleges stuck in educational systems developed for an earlier era—analog, national and industrial—need to adapt to prepare these students for 21st century lives.

Crossing the divide

Levine and Dean portray today’s students as trying to balance on a tightrope as they cross the divide between high aspirations and the reality of lowered expectations. They are going to college to achieve the American Dream, but jobs that use a college degree are in short supply.

They want to become responsible adults but are increasingly dependent on their parents and other adults. They want partners and families but are isolated and live in a hookup culture, with weak interpersonal skills and more sex than affection. They want to be global citizens in a diverse culture but know little about the world and avoid bridging political divides.

This generation of students shares some traits with previous generations, including:


  • personal optimism
  • pessimism about politics and government
  • lack of involvement in campus life
  • active engagement in community service
  • weak academic skills
  • inflated grades
  • utilitarian goals for college
  • consumer orientation to higher education
  • use of college counseling services
  • risky health behaviors with sex and alcohol


In other ways this generation is different, not better or worse but with distinct assets and liabilities. Demographically they are the most diverse college student population ever, with more women, gays and students of color.

Compared to earlier generations, they are more connected to parents and social media contacts but personally isolated, with poor face-to-face communication or problemsolving skills. Having grown up with helicopter parents watching their every move, they are more immature, coddled, dependent and entitled: “This is a generation of students who have not been permitted to skin their knees.”

Today’s students face the worst economy in recent memory. They are working more at paid employment and taking longer to graduate. They come away with an enormous burden of student loan debt. One in four college graduates who have lived away from home has moved back in with their parents. One in eleven is unemployed, and many with jobs are doing unskilled labor. Their aspiration to be better off than their parents is high and unrealistic.

Educating students for tomorrow

Nobody knows what tomorrow will look like. It will almost certainly become even more globalized and interconnected, but that could take any number of forms. Change will likely come even faster than it does now, in ways we can scarcely imagine. The greatest needs will be for critical thinking, creativity and continual learning.

The purpose of higher education has not changed, they write; it is to prepare students for human, productive and satisfying lives. But to achieve this in the 21st century, universities need to change.

Among their suggestions:

Ways of learning: Students’ learning styles have become more active or interactive, more outcome- oriented and less tied to a fixed time and place. Use case studies, field studies, simulations, group learning and social networking. Help students to select what’s significant from an excess of data.

Multiculturalism: 83% of students surveyed said it was important to have experience with people of a different race, religion or cultural background. Significant gains in diversity are threatened by rising costs and the shift away from need-based aid. Structure experiences on campus for diverse students to work together. Sports teams and theater are traditionally strong in this regard.

Globalization: 3/5 of students said education would be better if courses examining other cultures were required. Continue expanding international programs and curriculum.

Enriched majors: Broaden the essential grounding in a discipline with multidisciplinary elements, problem solving, ethics, workplace skills and internships.

Beyond higher education, they offer ideas for other stakeholders. Employers can set high expectations, while holding employees accountable. Consider relaxing some policies such as rigid hours and dress codes.

Parents can allow their children responsibility and limited experiences of failure; let them skin their knees. Prepare them to be independent and give honest, caring feedback. “Children should not be given unconditional applause for everything they do, just unconditional love,” they wrote.

As a larger society, we can make civic engagement respectable again. Students are highly engaged in local service but cynical about politics. Authors suggest expanding the Peace Corps, Teach for America and other public service opportunities, perhaps in exchange for reducing college debt.

Renewing Kennedy’s challenge to “ask what you can do for your country” could help students as well as the nation. 


Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, April). Moveable Type: Students Unprepared for Uncertain Future. Women in Higher Education, 22(4), 24.


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