5 reasons today's college students are nothing like we were

Matthew Schuler | Oct 24, 2016

Photo by Toa Heftiba

Kids these days. Snap me, kik me, hundo p v savage RT, what?

Connecting with young people isn’t easy. It’s difficult to empathize with something when you don’t understand it, and often even the way young people talk leaves us mystified.

It’s become clear that our nation’s healthiest churches are churches where young people and older people sit side-by-side, week after week, talking to each other, understanding each other, serving together, and connecting with one another.

So how can we connect with young people? The first step is understanding them (tweet that).

Every year a survey is released to 100,000 college freshmen at four-year colleges across the country, and miraculously they actually complete it. The schools are blindly selected by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles to ensure that the sample is as diverse as possible. Here's what we know about the class of 2018 so far:

1) They don't hang with friends as much.

The average freshman used to socialize for 16+ hours on any given week, but no longer. That percentage is at a record low, dropping from 34% to 18% of students in the past 10 years.

(Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA)

Predictably, time spent on virtual social networking platforms continues to scale rapidly—from 19% of students spending 16+ hours per week in 2007, to 27% of students today. The primary social development space is shifting from physical space to digital space, which leaves you and I wondering, “so how exactly are we supposed to interact with these new generations?”

This is a bit of a problem for those of us born before the internet, because most of our social skills were developed for an offline environment, and today’s freshmen are developing those same skills for an online environment. Socially they’re communicating in a completely different dialect.

How can we connect with young adults when they aren’t as interested in being together face-to-face? How can we as leaders and parents connect our native ways of communicating with their digital dialect?

And as we work to integrate young people into our communities, what would “digital mentorship” look like? What does this mean about our concepts of “teaching” and “discipleship?”

2) They're less religious than ever before… or at least less tribal.

As I’m sure you’ve read, the percentage of students who respond "none" to religious preference has been steadily climbing since 1981, and is now at an all-time high of 28%.

(Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA)

Even more interesting, this trend is also reflected at Christian universities, a place we usually assume attracts only the religiously affiliated. Even the most stable segment, Catholic colleges, experienced a climb to 15% who respond “none,” which is over four times higher than the previous average.

In our schools, our churches, in our small groups and in our homes, we are increasingly surrounded by people who attend and participate in our communities, but who do not self-identify as part of our tribe.

What does this mean about how we communicate our values clearly? What is it about our organizations that young adults don’t trust?

If nothing else, this trend helps us be increasingly mindful of each person in our community, and the differences that are sure to be lurking just beneath the surface. Our ministries and colleges, even Christian colleges, are no longer tribes of homogenous belief, they are increasingly diverse and nuanced. Asking unassuming questions is one of the best ways for organizations to embrace this new reality.

3) They didn't party much in high school.

Alcohol consumption prior to college has been falling steadily since the 80's, and is lower than ever before. Fewer than half say they "frequently" or "occasionally" drank wine, beer, or hard liquor during high school.

(Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA)

Frequent smoking is also falling fast, from 9% in 1981 to the current 2%. Nice try Mad Men.

While a minority of young people do face harmful substance abuse problems, and those problems should be taken very seriously, the common belief that our ministries and churches should be a “safe space for college kids to socialize without the booze” is perhaps no longer the best use of our time and resources. Young adults are facing a myriad of urgent issues, but those issues are no longer the issues we have structured our organizations to solve.

So, what are young people struggling with?

4) College freshmen are more depressed than ever before.

It messes with me every time I read about this trend. Mental health sets another record this year—it's worse than ever. Approximately 10% of college freshmen report feeling "frequently" depressed, and only half report that their "emotional health" is at an acceptable level.

This is a significant deviation from freshmen respondents in the past, who reported much higher satisfaction with their psychological wellbeing across the board.

Here’s an article we did about naming and navigating depression in the lives of young people.

Mental health is already complex, but when you layer in the complexities of today’s Mach 5 world, along with the beehive of growing responsibilities imposed on our young people, things get confusing fast. It’s often difficult for us as leaders and parents to envision the kinds of spaces young people need in our ministries, spaces that facilitating mental healing and sustained flourishing. As additional resources come online for creating these new spaces, I’ll come back and link them here.

5) They're already planning on grad school.

The 4-year college cliché is dead, but we still think it’s alive, like Bruce Willis. Among college freshmen, 43% are aiming for a master's degree, and 33% expect to earn a doctorate.

In previous years, only students pursuing careers as doctors and lawyers were signing up for 8-10 years of education rather than 4, but now half of all students are making that same commitment, or assuming they will have to make it. That’s twice the students taking on twice the commitment.

(Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA)

This doubles the length of time students require assistance from parents and student loans, which has caused tremendous strain on both the families of students, and the students themselves.

This extended support period often becomes a black hole in our ministries, as many of us have yet to develop a system that provides the kind of support this demographic needs. Our college freshmen are beginning a long, difficult journey, a journey with rules that change every few years and require constant adaptation by our young people as the world continues to evolve at an unprecedented rate.

So what does this mean for our ministry?

One thing is clear: college freshmen are a demographic we leaders and parents are struggling to understand.

As we open ourselves to young people, remember that they are, in many ways, from a completely different planet than the one that existed when we went to college. May we not make assumptions about their planet and how life works on their world. May we ask questions, and expect answers that do not always make sense.

Related: What twenty-somethings need from us more than (almost) anything else

Research-based insights on churches engaging young people

Get Growing Young

Matthew Schuler

Matthew is an education technology entrepreneur and Creative Director.

At age 18 Matthew launched his first startup, Roshambo Industries, to provide communications support for the United States Armed Forces oversees and domestically. In 2009 he founded Snowtone Ltd, a venture to assist companies implementing social revenue models. He expanded to Cape Town, South Africa where he deployed social business models alongside Floyd McClung and constructed two intercultural training facilities located in the the poorest townships of the region. Matthew also served as a consultant to the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa on decriminalization reform and anti-human trafficking legislation, and as an advisor for the Traffick Proof coalition and Media Village in Muizenberg.

In 2007 Matthew founded The Well Church with lead singers Lance and Layne Stafford of Cloverton and served as Lead Pastor until 2009. The Well Church became a hallmark for creative ministry practices and a springboard for experimental ministry projects around the globe.

Matthew lives in Silver Lake, California with his wife Irene Cho.

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