Skip to Navigation | Skip to Content
Faculty Resource Network Home

Serving the Millennial Student: How Far Should We Go?

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

Excerpts from the Plenary Panel

Speaker: JoNes R. VanHecke, Dean of Student Life, Central College

Over the past four years in our colleges and universities we have been experiencing the best and the worst that the Millennial generation has to offer. As we reflect on that, let me remind you that we are talking about not only today’s college students but also the students who will be joining us on our campuses for the next decade and a half. As we are beginning to understand, these students are associated with a wide array of both positive and negative social habits. On the plus side we see them as focused on teamwork, achievement, convention, modesty, and good conduct. On the downside, we are concerned that they are self-absorbed, customer-oriented, demanding, driven, and self-centered. 

With the arrival of the Millennial generation came a new interest in children. Whereas being alone was a defining feature of the Gen X childhood, by contrast the lives of the Millennials are “whirlwinds of activity centered on them, arranged for their benefit by adults¼ [who] stay on the premises, cheering” (Murray, p.41).  The Millennials have grown up accustomed to achieving, and it appears that their success is being managed every step of the way.

Surprisingly, much of this is good news for today’s colleges and universities. Generally, this invested interest has lead to Millennials who are better prepared, more confident and, because they have already come to enjoy the rewards and payoffs, more willing to do what it takes to succeed.  “Millennials will actually invest a considerable amount of energy in pursuit of their goals.  They are accustomed to doing this” (Murray, p.42).  We have found that they will listen when faculty indicates that there is base of knowledge that everyone should have or a core curriculum that is important for personal development. 

I would like to touch on three important characteristics shared by the Millennials: techno-savvy, experiential, and social (although I’ll offer you a caveat on that one).

Techno-savvy: Today’s traditional-aged undergraduates have grown up with cell phones, DVDs, GPS, call waiting, i-Pods and on-line shopping, on-line banking, on-line everything. If they want to learn about something, they go to the Web. Thanks to technology, they are also immediate: The millennials IM because email slows them down, and they text-message because phone conversations take too long. TiVo further allows them to exist in the world of the immediate. Further, today’s students expect exponential change. In terms of technology, they have never known slow change. Instead, they expect to buy and upgrade over relatively short periods of time. They’re comfortable with planned obsolescence.

Experiential: These students are even more comfortable than previous generations with the idea of learning by doing. They turn to peers to assist them in the learning process. They’ve attended elementary and high schools that provide experiential learning environments complete with working teams and roundtables. They come to college expecting this same level of engagement. The challenges here are apparent. They are having trouble adjusting to the lecture format and large group discussions AND, because of that, they may be checking email rather than taking class notes on their laptops. In essence, they choose to leave if they are not engaged (Montana & Lenaghan). The flipside, however, has tremendous potential. With their preference for active engagement, these students may be the first generation that is truly up to the task of co-constructing the curriculum. If we can identify ways to keep them involved, there exists a real potential for greatness.

Social: This one is complicated. In our classrooms and residence halls, we have a generation of students who have grown up in cognitively focused, structured group activities –  language immersion pre-schools and Lego team competitions are two examples. They are typically comfortable learning in engaged groups and team projects. FaceBook and MySpace are virtual social gatherings and Buddylists are virtual social group networks. Today’s college students have amazing mechanisms for keeping in touch with each other 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and yet these same students often lack the communication skills and the confidence to confront their peers. Gather together a group of college residence life professionals and it won’t take long before you’re hearing the horror stories of roommates who email back and forth to “discuss” a problem but refuse to have a face-to-face conversation. Our counseling centers can’t keep up with the demands for their services. And little wonder: these kids have grown up seeing therapists and taking Prozac and Ritalin. We know that the Millennials are already capable of functioning as a group, but I believe that our challenge is to encourage them to also be comfortable with themselves as reflective individuals.

Finally, a student affairs perspective on the Millennial generation would be incomplete if I failed to mention that it is parents that may be the generations’ biggest detractors (Brownstein, 2000; Lowery 2001). Nicknamed “helicopter parents” because of their near-constant hovering, colleges and universities are coming to understand that we aren’t just getting a new student, we’re also getting a parent. Increased parental involvement is the new norm. Just as their parents are involved and invested in book reports, term papers, and science projects, so, too, are we finding that whether it is academics or co-curricular events the Millennials’ parents are conducting exhaustive searches to find college activities at which their children can succeed. 

In addition, today’s students seem complacent in their willingness to let Mom or Dad step in and mediate their conflicts, make their decisions, or call the shots.  The challenge for educators is to keep the student in the center of the conversation. We must direct our conversations to the students. We must role model civil dialogue. We must insist that students speak for themselves and call on parents to play supporting roles. 

Take Home Points
The learning dimension of the teaching and learning environment may find its moment in time. With their propensity to be engaged learners, this is the generation with the potential to actively join their professors in co-constructing the curriculum.  Further, the Millennials are already well accustomed to performing mandatory community service. This may just be the opportune time for institutions of higher education to assert their value-laden connection to the public good and finally push full-forward with curriculum-related service learning programs.

This is a generation that has grown up with technology, if not in the home, then at least in the school. Techno-savvy institutions will be a requirement. It isn’t going to be enough to proudly proclaim having computer labs in every residence hall. Wireless campuses will be an expectation.

These new students already know a lot about functioning as a group. The challenge to higher education will be to encourage them to also be comfortable with themselves as reflective individuals. Additionally, a potential decrease in drug use and abuse by the “average student” could mean that colleges and universities will be able to focus time and resources on the individuals with serious addiction problems.

If even half of stories about the Millennials drive for success are true, faculty and administrators have their work cut out for them in terms of helping students understand that there is also much to learn from failing on occasion.

Overall, what does all of this mean?  As with previous generations of college students, it’s a mixed bag. There is a lot that is very good about the students joining us at our institutions of higher education, but there are also development-related challenges. We should not assume that students who to date have led highly structured, activity filled lives are going to automatically know how to cope with college educators who urge them to plan their own lives. We need to be prepared to actively engage students in their own learning process. We need to align technology with pedagogy. Perhaps now, more than ever, the age old concept of “challenge and support” must take center stage as these very capable college students make the transition into adulthood.


Brownstein, A., (2000). The next great generation? Chronicle of Higher Education, 47 (7), A71 -A72.

Lowery, J., (2001). The millennials come to campus. About Campus, July/August, 6-12.

Montana, P.J. & Lenaghan, J.A., (1999). What motivates and matters most to generations X and Y.  Journal of Career Planning and Employment, 59 (4), 27-30.

Murray, N.D. (1997). Welcome to the future: The millennial generation. Journal of Career Planning and Employment, 57(3), p. 36-42.