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Re-energizing a disconnected generation

A recent report by leading higher education active learning platform provider, Top Hat, leveled some serious indictments into how college students feel about today’s learning experience. Among other things, “The Top Hat Field Report: 3,052 College Students on the Good, the Bad and Learning Post-COVID” survey showed that 80% of students do not feel the learning experience has been worth the cost of tuition.

The report, which surveyed 3,000-plus higher ed students partway through the Spring 2021 academic term, is helping give institutions and educators key insights into what has worked, what hasn’t and how the past year shaped their learning expectations once it is safe to return to campus.

More than anything else, the Top Hat report casts a spotlight on the psyche of today’s ever-evolving college students. For example, the survey showed that while students have appreciated the flexibility of remote learning and again are looking forward to returning to physical classrooms, most want to see elements of online learning carried forward. In addition, when it comes to realizing the value of their higher education investment, on-campus experiences and activities are not nearly as significant as the role of instructors in the classroom.

The challenges—and there are enough to make higher education institutions re-examine their strategies—will not simply disappear once students return to the physical classroom. “I think there is a long list of things weighing on today’s students,” says Andrea S. Hershatter, Senior Associate Dean and BBA Program Director for the Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta. “However, I would say their biggest fear is uncertainty. Like millennials, this generation already struggled with dealing with ambiguity. Most recently, they’ve seen that the world as they know it can literally shift at any time. I believe they will work to be more self-reliant than millennials. I also think they’ll reject the idea of a zero-sum game. Instead, my best guess is that they’ll choose both meaningful work/intellectual pursuits and to pursue the educational backgrounds that will enable them to feel economically secure.”

In our hyper-connected world—one that keeps us connected at every turn, it seems as if young people are more disconnected than ever. One of the reasons may be that they are not getting enough practice relating to people and getting their needs met in person and in real time. When friendships and relationships are conducted online and through texts, much of the context of personalized communication is stripped away.

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Margot Bloomstein, speaker, consultant and founder of Appropriate Inc., says that across all channels, the messages geared toward students are competing for attention, and that on digital platforms, competition is a feature, not a bug. “On Twitter, your tweets fly by amid a non-stop feed from every other brand a student follows, and incoming reminders and replies constantly jockey to pull them to other screens and even away from the app itself. On digital platforms, you need to design for distraction—and then be ready to engage more deeply through interactive modes than print communication ever requires.”

Bloomstein, whose clients include Bates College, Carnegie Mellon University, Harvard University and Sallie Mae, believes universities can help unite curious minds by building expertise and knowledge. By making knowledge more accessible, and empowering people with the tools to learn and evaluate information, higher education institutions can be at the forefront of regaining trust and helping people connect with each other.

“Knock down your ivory towers,” says Bloomstein, who also is author of “Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap.” “The more universities can make information accessible and teach people how to evaluate information, the more they empower them with tools to learn—and hope that they can continue to learn. That’s the best way to counter gaslighting or growing cynicism, and higher education can be a force for all in that fight.”

Hello, I must be going

On the cover of The College of New Jersey’s viewbook is a single word: “Hi.” The message sets a welcoming tone at the outset that extends across its marketing materials and throughout the four-year undergraduate experience. Dave Muha, TCNJ’s Associate VP for Communications, Marketing and Brand Management, says its faculty consider themselves teacher-scholars—ones who do collaborative research with students that gets published in professional journals and presented at national and international conferences.

“Everything is geared to deliver on that promise of an exceptional education in a supportive community—faculty, staff and other students who have your back,” Muha says. “You will be challenged, but you will be supported.”

The College of New Jersey’s strategy is centered on a “meet-its-students-where-they-live” approach. The game plan is to address them personally where it can, and speak to them on their level when it cannot. This past year, TCNJ piloted a student voices campaign on Instagram that featured students from across the college speaking about their experience in the first person.

TCNJ’s digital media strategy is one that Muha says can convey the warmth and personality of a community. “There are so many aspects of college that can’t be replicated digitally. Conducting research in a lab side-by-side with a professor. Community-engaged learning that puts what’s learned in the classroom into practice in service to others. The lifetime friendships that are made, and the support that is derived from those friendships. Human connections matter.”

“There are so many aspects of college that can’t be replicated digitally. The lifetime friendships that are made, and the support that is derived from those friendships. Human connections matter.”
— Dave Muha, Associate VP for Communications, Marketing & Brand Management, TCNJ

Gisa Rollin says that rather than use technology as a substitute for face-to-face interaction, today’s colleges and universities must reinforce the power of personal connections by example. If there was any good to be found in the experiences of the pandemic, it may be that it helped people truly realize the importance of social interaction.

“Over time, young people have slowly been losing the value of speaking face to face,” says Rollin, Development Director at SKEMA Business School, U.S. Campus, in Raleigh, North Carolina. “While it has been beneficial to help connect with others, it has been detrimental in maintaining face-to-face conversations, thus leading to a decline in personal social connectivity and aptitude. Colleges should also be hosting events that will be more intriguing and more meaningful. No more informative PSAs; instead, colleges should create events that students will actually enjoy going to—places where they can find things in common with each other.”

In a digital world turned even more upside down by the recent slate of events, just how far off the mark are we in reconnecting personally with the younger generation? Emory University’s Hershatter says the game is still in play. “It is never too late. GenZ is the most likely generation in history to enroll in college and the most likely to have college-educated parents.”

Speak with an authentic voice. Empower two-way dialogue and create incentives for Zoomers to participate in the conversation. Allow unfettered and uncensored peer-to-peer communication. Recognize the power of visual media and use it whenever possible instead of written communication.

“If we understand that in terms of information, less is more, and powerful and short is much more effective, we have a chance [to reconnect].”
— Andrea S. Hershatter, Senior Associate Dean & BBA Program Director, Goizueta Business School at Emory University

“If we understand that in terms of information, less is more, and powerful and short is much more effective, we have a chance [to reconnect],” Hershatter says. “I believe we connect to them in meaningful ways as facilitators and coaches; by connecting them to each other and to the resources higher education can provide that will enable them to find the pathways they will envision for themselves.”

As higher ed continues to sift through the changes of the past year, it is likely the opportunities for effective strategies of connection will bear out, resulting in a win-win for universities and students.