Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects and topics being explored at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines. The following originally appeared on The Conversation.
It’s now readily apparent that we’re in the midst of a new wave of college student protests.
From the Concerned Student 1950 movement that led to the ouster of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe to the Million Student March that spanned 110 campuses and called for a debt-free education, campuses across the nation are witnessing an upsurge in student resistance.
The protests have focused on the biased treatment of specific student populations, discriminatory practices and the economic challenges students face.
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Interestingly, though, much of the response to these protests has focused less on the issues raised by students and more on the character flaws of the students themselves. The story has been that there must be something wrong with these kids.
Building on anti-millennial rhetoric, student protesters have been described as overreacting, hysterical, entitled and coddled. They’ve been accused of lacking resilience, practicing intolerance and being unable to grasp reality.
But the critiques and characterizations of the student protesters actually aren’t grounded in any sort of reality. Instead, public response to student protests has been largely based on anecdote, intolerance and a failure to recognize the real challenges students face today.
The “lamest” generation
The attacks on student protesters shouldn’t come as a surprise. They add to the pervasive view that millennials are spoiled slackers. They’ve even been described as “the lamest generation.”
According to political scientist Russell Dalton, millennial Americans may be the most disparaged generation of young people in the nation’s history. Yes, older people have always belittled younger generations. (Even the so-called “Greatest Generation” was criticized for being “over-mothered.”) But Dalton’s research shows that millennials may be the most publicly denounced generation of all time.
In an article about European millennials, Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote, “every generation has its measure of outcasts. However, it doesn’t happen often that the plight of being outcast may stretch to embrace a whole generation.”
Indeed, the problem seems to run deeper than standard-issue generation bashing.
For one, the attacks seem to mimic the economic and political realities into which millennials were born. Along with the rise of a neoliberal economic order that privileges the market over citizens, we’ve witnessed the evolution of a national attitude that increasingly views social crises as personal problems.
In other words, rather than understanding the challenges facing this generation of young people — student debt, a hostile economy, a highly polarized society, strained race relations, increased academic pressures — as a social crisis that affects us all, the trend has been to “privatize” their problems and assume that students just need to “toughen up.”
These sorts of claims are legion among university leaders, faculty and the media.
At a recent meeting I attended on academic leadership at the University of Wisconsin, I was astonished at how often university leaders disparaged millennial students, referring to them repeatedly as whiners. In one particularly disturbing exchange I had with a faculty member from Purdue, she called her students entitled slackers. Her evidence? They wanted to retake tests when they hadn’t done well. At the same meeting, a colleague from Penn State said he thought students benefited from debt, since it taught them the value of education.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Selingo, a faculty member at Arizona State University, complained in The Washington Post that students are not only raised by helicopter parents; they’re also coddled by helicopter universities that cater to their every whim, while virtually guaranteeing that they graduate. And Psychology Today published a widely circulated piece detailing how students lack resilience and are overburdening campus counseling services for unfounded anxieties.
The millennial myth mill
All one has to do is look at the numbers to see how the complaints of academics and the media are overblown.
At Arizona State University, the four-year graduation rate is actually 43 percent — a far cry from the diploma turnstile described by Selingo.
And asking to retake a test isn’t an example of entitlement: the student is asking for a second chance, not a gift. Given the real ways that GPAs affect a student’s future, such worries aren’t unreasonable.
With regard to student resilience, discounting the real anxieties of college students ignores the real pressure they face. Suicide among high school students is also on the rise; recent data show that some of America’s most privileged students are thinking about suicide at alarming rates.
More disturbing is the claim that debt helps students. It may seem unfair to home in on an anecdote, but the idea that student debt builds character is all too common. We can even find students chiming in about the character benefits to their loans.
While student loans can sometimes be called “good debt,” there’s mounting evidence against it. Debt creates tremendous pressure on students — most of it far from good. Beyond greatly hindering graduates in their selection of future careers, there’s even ample evidence that, in extreme cases, student debt can lead to suicide.
CNBC reports that “The high levels of student debt are also serving to perpetuate and even worsen economic inequality, undercutting the opportunity and social mobility that higher education has long promised.” In addition, studies have shown that debt disproportionately hurts women and minorities.
Facts versus fiction
Clearly our nation’s young are in crisis — and it’s not all in their heads. There’s overwhelming evidence that college students live in an era of insecurity.
Here’s a sampling:
▪ About one-third of all college students are first generation.
▪ Forty-three percent of millennials are of color and deal on a daily basis with the challenges of white privilege.
▪ Twenty-six percent of undergraduates are raising dependent children.
▪ One-in-five female students will be sexually assaulted in college.
▪ Seventy percent of college students have student debt. Nationwide, that adds up to $1.2 trillion — a per student average of $29,000.
▪ Student debt is higher for black students than white students. In 2013, 42 percent of black families carried student loan debt, compared to 28 percent of white families.
▪ Forty percent of the nation’s unemployed are millennials.
▪ Hate crimes on campuses are on the rise, and more than 11 percent of all hate crimes in 2009 took place on college campuses.
▪ By the age of 23, nearly half of black males and 40 percent of white males have been arrested.
▪ Despite recruiting efforts to draw a diverse student body, students of color often find a lack of inclusion and support once they arrive. From offensive Halloween garb to KKK graffiti, these students often encounter unwelcoming, or even hostile, environments. This is especially true at schools located outside of urban areas.
▪ Black and Hispanic students have lower graduation rates than whites. In 2005, 62 percent of whites got a degree within six years, versus 40 percent of blacks and 51 percent of Hispanics.
▪ Seventy-nine percent of faculty are white, a statistic that, according to research, can negatively influence the academic success of nonwhite students.
▪ College-educated black students are also disproportionately unemployed. In 2013, 12.4 percent of black graduates were unemployed, compared to 4.9 percent of whites.
Clearly, students protesting race relations and economic insecurity have valid concerns. And if it makes sense to talk about taking down the Confederate flag, isn’t it also reasonable to debate the commemoration of racists like Woodrow Wilson on our nation’s college campuses?
Yet when protests — like the recent one at Yale University — are covered, the students are derided as intolerant and hysterical. Comedian Bill Maher referred to them as “little monsters.”
Rather than analyze the complex realities that caused the protests in the first place, much of the attention has been on the character — or lack thereof — of the protesters themselves.
As Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reported from the front lines of the Black Lives Matter campus protests, “All of these streams feed the river of anxiety, frustration and disappointment flowing through black students across the country. These students are not coddled or hypersensitive. Rather, they are grappling with the uncertainty and insecurity that accompanies much of black life in the United States today.”
Why is there an inability to imagine that students have legitimate grievances? And why does the critique focus on the flaws of the protesters rather than the flawed institutions that sparked the protests in the first place?
Unfortunately, until we change the narrative of coddled-millennial-cum-entitled-activist, it’s unlikely any serious thought will be given to the matter.
Sophia A. McClennen is the associate director of the School of International Affairs at Penn State. She is also a professor of comparative literature and international affairs.