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Colleges: Custodians of a generation entering adulthood

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Scott D. Miller Scott D. Miller
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Dr. Scott D. Miller is president and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College. A graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College, he has served as president of three private liberal arts colleges during the past 23 years.

They're back….

As a college president, I'm glad!  But as America's college students began arriving on campus last month, they brought with them the challenges that define residential academic life today. 

It's not a matter of moving all of their considerable stuff into residence halls. Many such complexes today have more than enough floor and storage space to allow students to bring their personal households with them. In the 1970s as a freshman, I carried everything I needed in an AMC Pacer, not a U-Haul.

No, it's more a matter of moving them along the slippery path to adulthood while giving them the freedom to make the kinds of choices (healthful ones, we hope) that mark the transition to maturity and responsibility.

For those of us entrusted with their care for four or more years, it sure isn't easy.

Nor is it cheap. Student loan debt has ballooned to more than $1 trillion while "the growing attention to universities' soaring prices is pushing some private colleges to a tuition tipping point, according to Standard & Poor's Rating Services," and as reported by Bloomberg Businessweek.  

All the while, students and families seek more value as justification for expenditure of tuition dollars. My institution, Bethany College, has seen an uptick in cross-applications with nearby state schools, though a College Board survey reports that students in-state at four-year public institutions paid 5 percent more in tuition last year than they did in the previous year — with costs of room and board even higher. We private colleges have struggled to hold the line on tuition, stressing value over "sticker price" and offering plentiful financial aid to offset a family's out-of-pocket investment.

Still, says the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities — NAICU — "Getting a targeted number of accepted students to commit to a college's freshman class — known as the ‘yield' — has become more crucial for thousands of schools. Enrollment rates for numerous smaller and lesser-known colleges and universities are falling this year, due to a decline in the U.S. college-age population, years of rising tuition, increasing popularity of Internet courses and a weak job market for recent graduates."

So the challenge for those "smaller and lesser-known colleges" is to find and promote the value that their campuses provide — the intangibles linked to lifestyles, life choices and life wellness. Many of us are getting pretty good at defining our freshman classes in qualitative, not just quantitative, terms. That's good news because today's college students, being the Millennials that they are, are being impacted by far more than rising tuition.

Much has been written about how personal technology, social media, the loss of traditional community identity and shifting family patterns have shaped the Millennial students' thinking, modes of learning and personal values. Their perceptions, in turn, have changed how we teach on our campuses — they prefer fewer traditional lectures, more interactive formats, rapid information discovery and unashamed self-disclosure (read, if you dare, some of their Facebook and Twitter posts). 

They're generally more socially tolerant than my group, the late Boomers, may have been, though I like to think we were more culturally revolutionary. You wouldn't find the Millennials lounging around the mud for three days at Woodstock — what would be the point?  We laid the groundwork for Earth Day and other activism; the Millennials' get-it-done spirit measures volunteerism in tasks checked off, hours performed and credits earned as service learning. And good for them!

Still, this generation often described as being rewarded not just for being No. 1 but for competing in the first place, these young scholars who may not value the study of history but do respond to its hardest lessons, these newly minted freshmen confidently downloading their lives remain vulnerable.  Societal forces and personal pressures carry over into their college existence, and we educators are well advised to take heed.

Writing in The Washington Post (Aug. 19, 2013), Michael Gerson notes "that among the greatest fears of college students is they won't have a room at home to return to. They want to keep a beachhead in their former life."  Establishing that beachhead on campus, however, can be more disturbing than worrying about the posters left on your bedroom walls back home. 

For example, if you're a first-generation college student (the first in your family to enroll in higher education), you'll likely face an entirely new and unfamiliar vocabulary related to financial aid, enrolling, advising, studying and adjusting to the expectations of professors, staff members and fellow students. Your risk of failing or dropping out before your sophomore year is high. 

If you were a troubled high school student, enrolling in college is not an automatic cure. Even on small campuses where everyone seems to know everyone else, the temptation to go underground — to lose oneself in personal technology and unconventional biorhythms — can be acute. I tell our freshmen at Bethany that if they start missing classes, their professors will be in touch with a text, call or email. If you don't take advantage of campus activities and social interaction through clubs or sports, research shows that your risk of failing or dropping out is high.

If you were academically a marginal student in high school, the news is more encouraging. Most colleges and universities have established learning centers where students requiring remediation can focus on good study habits, writing and other academic skills taught by trained tutors, who are often students themselves. Each year, new programs addressing academic or social deficiencies are packaged with freshman seminars and other transitional classes to build student confidence and increase enrollment retention.

Above all, we want you, our matriculating Millennials, to be safe in your new home. Professionally trained campus police forces, emergency counselors and first responders, crisis-management plans, instant-alert messaging and other resources are the order of the day after 9/11 and such tragedies as the shootings at Virginia Tech, Aurora and Newtown. The Chronicle of Higher Education (Aug. 16, 2013) reports on the growing movement nationwide to confront, prevent and adjudicate through the criminal justice system incidents of campus sexual violence. Calls for students to be more tolerant, courteous and respectful toward each other — to leave trash talk and insensitive attitudes behind — reverberate each year in our hallowed halls.

Colleges and universities can build ever more elaborate fitness and wellness centers, intramural programs, modular residence halls, food courts and Internet cafes. We can hire more staff counselors, convene more symposia on the ups and downs of being a college freshman, warn about alcohol abuse and clamp down on renegade fraternities. We can construct a near-perfect bubble that shields our students for the four (or more) years that are required today to earn a baccalaureate degree. We do all of this, and much more, on most campuses today while also finding ways to inspire curiosity and lifelong learning, prime for careers, instill social responsibility and engender institutional-advancement loyalty before our newest alumni exit the far side of the commencement platform.

Watching our freshmen carry their boxes into their residence halls on move-in day, I am always reminded of what a daunting task we face each September as the custodians of this generation. We have to have our students' active engagement to pull it off, have to know when to intervene and when to let them alone to learn, to fail and to thrive in their own way. 

But after they've been on campus a while, when I see them glance up from their handheld technology and shoot me a grin of measured satisfaction about being here, when they've struggled and fought and still managed to get into a top graduate school or Wall Street firm, I know I'm in the right profession.