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Millennials: Challenges and Implications to Higher Education

November 17-18, 2006
University of the Sacred Heart and the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Beatriz Rivera, University of Puerto Rico, Business School

Maribel Huertas, University of Puerto Rico, Business School


The original presentation described the different meanings of “Millennials,” and provided an overview of the characteristics, motivating forces, learning styles, and needs of “Millennials” as compared to students of prior generations. It also presented the experience of an innovative program incorporating cross cultural field experiences and service learning. This article focuses on the first portion of the session.

Can You Tell Who They Are?
Can you identify the characteristics of the generations of the 20th century? Can you name the generations of the twentieth century? Let’s try for a moment to picture the generational markers of the 20th century:

Generational Markers
Greatest Generation (GI) 1901-1924
Traditionalists 1925-1945
Baby boomers 1946-1960
Generation X 1961-1980
Millennials 1981-present i

The literature on the different generations points to the Greatest Generation, also called the GI generation born between 1901 and 1924, as the first generation from the 20th century. There are now four generations interacting at school and at work. Although many point to the millennials as a generation that spans from 1981 to the present, there is already the development of a new generation called the Cable Babes, or new silent generation. Time will tell its true generation markers and characteristics.

Understanding the generations, in particular those that cohabit, is important. A generation is a product of the times and its social, economic, and technological trends. The environment in which students developed their experiences (and values) shapes who they become, how they see the world, and what they do.

Now, if we were to ask you to place a label, what would you say? What generation has been deemed skeptical or practical or sheltered? Which generation is known to have accelerated life styles, wed early, or focus on education, and which generation pursues meaningful work, is known to be loyal, to be workaholic, or to pursue a balance between work and personal life?

Well, the baby-boomers seem to expect and are more intent on improving their economic and social status. Generation X expects less job security and is motivated more by workplace flexibility, the opportunity to learn, and working in an egalitarian and fun organization. These traits and characteristics pose huge societal implications.

Why Is That Important?
In Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe (1992) provide a definition of “generation” as a cohort-group, comprised by all the people born in a limited span of consecutive years. They propose a span of a phase of life of approximately 22 years. Each generational cohort represents a group of people impacted by their context, who will have an impact on the context in which they prospectively participate.

The literature shows (Howe and Strauss, 2000, 1992) that each time a generation is described, such a description occurs in terms of a number of markers beyond the span of years that designate when a generation starts or ends. More importantly, it is described in terms of social and economic trends, the perception of work, values, or common beliefs and behaviors. Different generations hold different attitudes and expectations, creating a deep level of diversity (McShane and Von Glinow, 2008) that impact interaction and its results.

Understanding the characteristics, beliefs and expectations of different generations working together at school or in the workplace can help achieve the objectives that will otherwise be jeopardized if we fail to pay attention to such an important part of our social fabric.

Who Are the Millennials?
“Millennials” is the designation for the latest generation we are interfacing with. As a generational cohort, the millennials show a number of characteristics and preferences that in some instances mimic the values of previous generations, while in others have never been observed before. Millennials are noticeably self-confident, optimistic, multitasking, and more independent than their previous generation (Howe and Strauss, 2000). Their experiences, values and preferences will likely shape a different world and challenge old paradigms.

Some of the characteristics that distinguish the millennials are (Howe and Strauss, 2000; Matney, 2006; Dede, 2005):

Possessing technological sophistication
Connected 24 hours/7 days a week
Community conscious
Optimistic, yet practical
Enjoy strong connections with their parents
Technology and multitasking are a way of life

The millennial generation is also known with a variety of names. They are called Digital natives, Native speakers, Nets, Internet generation, iGeneration and Nintendo digital generation, all making a reference to the digital world of our days. Other names are the Echo boomers, the boomlets, the Nexters and Generation N with reference to previous generations among others, or Generation Y and Sunshine generation as a reference to an inclusive and hopeful generation.

The millennials are called the Digital Natives because they are native speakers of technology, fluent in the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet. This fact results from the context in which they were born, and poses interesting challenges to the “Digital Immigrants.” The Digital Immigrants are all of us who were born when the computer was not yet personal, the cell phone did not exist, and the best information highway was a well-equipped library.

The millennials or digital natives learn about a blog, the wiki or podcasts before their parents and teachers do. They know the difference between the blackberry, the PDA, and the Mylo, and instead of having a sound system or a boombox, they download to the iPod and the MP4. It sounds like foreign language to us, but those are only the labels of new technology. The millennials represent the first generation to be born with this new technology (Brown 2000). They have spent their lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.

Furthermore, a foreign language distinguishes the digital immigrants from the digital natives. For example, when a digital immigrant talks about something flashy or glitzy, the digital native refers to it as the Bling Bling, the sneakers are Shox, a babe is a Hottie, and something cool or awesome is sweeeet!

Diana Oblinger (2003), claims millennials live by a number of principles that differ from other generations. For them,

Computers aren’t technology
The tnternet is better than TV
Reality is no longer real
Doing is more important than knowing
Learning more closely resembles Nintendo than logic
Multitasking is a way of life
Typing is preferred to handwriting
Staying connected is essential
Things are on demand, they have zero tolerance for delays
Consumer and creator are blurring

The Millennial Student
The millennial generation has come to college. This is a new breed of students likely to challenge paradigms in higher education. Howe and Strauss (2000) affirm that millennial students started entering college in 2000. Thus, it becomes relevant, given their particular characteristics, to address the challenges that this new generation pose to higher education. Matney (2006) asserts, “this generation will most certainly shape universities nationwide.” Keep in mind, however, that it is not only their characteristics that make it a challenge, but the dynamics the characteristics and experiences of the previous generations create when interacting with them. The gap between the millennials and previous generations is bigger than the gap between the baby-boomers and Genexers. One of the main causes is the vertiginous pace of technological development and change that creates a divide embodied in the millennial generation.

One profile of the millennial college student includes (Rue, 2002):

Exposure/experimentation with “grown up” activity
Exposure to vast information but less in depth
Different patterns of social connection and intimacy
Increasingly high levels of stress and anxiety (ADD/ADHD, alcohol, lack of study skills)
Community and service-oriented
Less interested in humanities
Typically under-prepared
Technological proficiency
Part-time employment
Ambitious but unrealistic expectations
Well aware of campus and community, rules, regulations and political correctness, however see it as a challenge to find a way around the rule
Less likely to engage in class participation

Neuroplasticity and the Millennials’ Learning Styles
People learn in different ways (Kolb, 1984). Recent advances in neuroscience have helped us understand how the brain works. We have learned that the brain reorganizes neural pathways based on new experiences. That phenomenon is called neuroplasticity, referring to the changes that occur in the organization of the brain and in particular changes that occur to the location of specific information-processing functions as a result of learning and experience. The proposition is that the environment shapes people’s experiences, thus impacting how people think and process information.

Imagine the difference of a generation that grew up playing baseball, jumping rope and playing with Barbie vs. the one playing Nintendo or Playstation. The rapid and aggressive change in technology that we experience nowadays is greatly responsible for the new environment we are referring to. There is indirect evidence (Prensky, 2001) our students’ brains are wired differently from ours as a result of how they grew up. Their thinking patterns have changed over intense and consistent exposure to the technological stimulus.

It is necessary for faculty now more than ever to learn about learning and benefit from the diversity of disciplines, like neurobiology, to keep abreast of these new and compelling topics. Learning occurs with stimulus and as faculty we need to ensure we provide the right stimulus for learning given the complexities of experience. We also need to be mindful of the messages this generation has grown up with; for example, they are constantly bombarded with…

You are special, you are smart, you can do it!
Be tolerant and inclusive
It’s available 24/7!
Perform!, Perform!, Perform!
Be mindful of others, serve your community
Keep in touch!

These messages help shape their self-concept and the boundaries of social interaction.

The learning styles topic is important as we recognize a paradigm of teaching and learning and honor a student-centered philosophy. As digital immigrants, we faculty have different learning styles than the millennial generation. Chris Dede (2005) points out their learning styles based on mediated immersion:

Fluency in multiple media and simulation-based virtual settings
Communal learning involving diverse, tacit, situated experience, with knowledge distributed across a community and a context as well as within an individual.
A balance among experiential learning, guided mentoring and collective reflection
Expression through nonlinear, associational webs of representations rather than linear “stories”
Co-design learning experiences personalized to individual needs and preferences
Impact of technology on learning styles, results on developing critical analysis thus encouraging learning based on seeking, sieving and synthesizing rather than on assimilating a single source of knowledge, multitasking and individualization.

There are important implications at different levels in higher education that merit mention:
implications for institutions
implications for faculty
implications for student services providers

Implications for Institutions
Higher education institutions face a number of educational issues thanks to the rising generation. Dede (2005), emphasizes that “institutions can prosper by using these emerging technology to deliver instruction matched to neomillennials learning styles…” Institutions need to assess the millennial student challenge from different perspectives and be open and encourage faculty and counselors to suggest the changes that they perceive important for the system. They are, after all, closer to the students (their key stakeholders).

Similarly they need to see parents with a new lens, include them and market to them; otherwise interference from “the helicopter parents” will ensue. They need to refocus funding strategies and develop differentiated relations with alumni in order to reflect the new generation. Institutions need to invest on physical plant, technological infrastructure and professional development. This might include a changing paradigm in the way that infrastructure is used on campus or how students connect and collaborate. Rethinking the role of academic support centers is also a must in order to:

Provide information to faculty on characteristics of students and learning strategies
Advise on effective study skills at the classroom level
Help students define their problems
Encourage reflection on faculty’s paradigms and corresponding behaviors about their students
Develop online workshops and information about effective study strategies
Evaluate location and physical infrastructure
Support smart objects and intelligent contexts and processes
Support processes: instruction and classroom assessment
Reconfigure and redesign use of space for social groupings, collaboration, and identity

Institutions must actively seek to understand this and future generations in order to be effective at recruitment, retention and graduation rates.

Implications for Faculty
Faculty are likely to experience confusing classroom environments, with students that seem less interested in participating, and who require a more individualized approach to the traditional topics. Such shifts will require a shift in instruction. The National Training Laboratories reports a shift in the average retention of different learning activities. Student’s retention average from lecture is only 5% and 10% from reading. On the other hand, retention average for discussion groups is 50%, 75% for practice by doing, and 90% when the student experiments in a teaching role. Given the millennials’ characteristics, faculty need to work on:

a diversity of learning experiences in the classroom
continuous research of what works for students to learn
elimination of delays
a customer service focus
experiential, interactive and authentic learning
staying connected
expanding their opportunities on and off campus
providing international internships emphasizing social services projects
revising the curriculum taking into account the millennial learning styles
and their differences

Faculty can encourage students by developing interactive activities, using portable devices like PDA, iPod, mobile phones, and creating learning communities. Students will work better with mind maps, cases, games, simulations and role-play. A custom and individualized program of professional development will help faculty get up to speed.

Implications for Student Services Providers
The millennials need a different model of support in college, and like faculty, student services providers need to understand and create new solutions for their needs. For example, they need to learn about and develop strategies for dealing with mental health issues. They also need to develop virtual counseling tools, understand and extend the existent customer service model using technology and new formats (FAQs. Email, cell phone, instant messaging). Service providers can also enhance services with products that technology supports. For example,

Include interactive calculators and estimators
Create interactive forms and electronic signatures
Assume that service is an expectation, not an exception
Tailor services to individuals
Use mobile technology to communicate important processes like admission, registration, counseling, and hours of operation
Maximize the offer of 24/7 services
Enhance the availability of library staff support on demand on site and online
Brainstorm on nontraditional ways of serving their customer
Engage students as co designers of the services that will fulfill their needs

Higher education needs to keep learning about the millennial generation and the generations that will come later, in order to remain relevant. Moreover, as institutions participate more globally, they will need to understand people with different characteristics because of the ways their contexts impact their lives. Questions such as how the millennials’ characteristics revealed here are applicable to non U.S. cultures, and which are the descriptors of the generational cohort currently entering college in different parts of the world will become more important. The millennials are a good challenge for learning and service.

Bell, Tom. (2006) The Millennial Student. Commerce Bulletin. Retrieved on 11/7/2006 from

Brown, John Seely (March/April 2000), vol. 32, no. 2 Growing Up Digital, Change, 10–11.

Dede, Chris. (2005) Planning for Neomillennial Lerning Styles. Educause Quarterly. No.1.

Dede Chirs. (2004). Planning for Neomillennial Learning Stuyles: Implications for Investments in Technology and Faculty.

Howe, N. & Strauss, B. (1992). Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069,

Howe, N. & Strauss, B. (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage Books.

Jamrog, Jay (2005) The Perfect Storm. Presented before the curriculum conference at AACSB, November,2005.

Kolb, David. (1984). Experiential Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Prentice Hall.

McGhee, Tom. (2006) Millennials make their mark. The Denver Post.

Matney, M. M. (2003). “Comparison of University of Michigan Students 1993 (Middle of Generation X) to 2002 (Beginning of Millennial Generation).” What’s on Our Student’s Minds, 1 (2).

Matney, M. M. (2006). “What Is Emerging in Research about Millennials?” What’s on Our Student’s Minds, 2 (3).

McShane, Steven L. and Von Glonow, Mary Ann (2008) Organizational Behavior 4th edition. Emerging Realities for the Workplace Revolution. McGraw-Hill Irwin. Boston.

Mellow, Peter. (2005) The media generation: Maximise learning b getting mobile. Ascilite Conference Proceedings.

Newburn, Rebecca, Educating Millennials, the New Generation. Retrieved from: on 11/13/2006

Oblinger, Diana. (July/August, 2003) Bommers, Genexers and millennials: Understanding the New Students. Educause Review.

Prensky, Marc. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. Vol.9. No. 5.

Prensky, Marc. (2001) Do they Really Think Differently? On the Horizon. Vol 9. No. 6.

Prensky, Marc. (2003). Has Growing up Digital and Extensive Video Game Playing Affected Younger Military Personnel’s Skill Sets? Paper present at I/ITSEC 2003.

Rue, Penny. (Fall 2002) The millenial generation comes to college. Volume VI, Number 2. Retrieved from on 10/27/2006.

i Howe and Strauss, 1992. Some researchers point at an emerging generation: The New Silent Generation, 2000-2020.

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