By Carolyn Glime, AIA
It is nearing the time when everyone realizes that the summer is half over, and a more relaxed state of mind begins to include a little panic. It doesn’t matter whether you have children or not; the message is everywhere that back-to-school time is fast approaching. It is especially poignant for me this year because my youngest child will be heading to Baltimore soon to attend John’s Hopkins University as a member of the incoming class of 2023. Lately, I have found myself pondering questions about what this group of Generation Z students wants their College or University experience to be like, the outcomes they expect, and how they will eventually contribute to society and the world.
I know that Higher Education Institutions regularly survey admitted students, as well as those accepted but don’t enroll, which provides some data related to the recruitment process. Also, student satisfaction surveys are administered regularly to enrolled students that provide institutions with information to evaluate and improve specific programs and services on campus, and many institutions also present exit interviews or surveys to those students who decide not to stay through graduation. However, I am unaware of any data that identifies how a single experience or group of experiences can impact a student’s sense of belonging to an institution and the campus community, a critical component leading to a commitment to contribute to the overall campus environment, culture, and vision. Therefore, I decided to engage a small cross-section of my son’s senior class in a discussion focused on the four components I call “the four P’s” that I believe are integral to every experience one encounters in life. They are:
- Perceptions and Expectations
- Programs and Services
Let me explain the premise through an example I often use when describing the importance of focusing on all four of these components when intentionally designing the ideal experience. Let’s say that a new eating establishment opens up in town, people are raving, the reviews are great, so you make a reservation. Your perception and expectations for this experience are set whether you realize it or not. Once you arrive at the restaurant, the entire welcome experience is critical, from finding the place to parking your car and your first glimpse of the place, since research suggests that first impressions are developed within the first few minutes. The people you meet throughout this experience, from the host/hostess to the waitstaff, bartender, and even other people dining at the restaurant play a significant role as well. Let’s just say that the host/hostess was friendly, the waitress attentive, and the bartender was timely. The noise level in the restaurant is just right for you to hear the buzz but still converse with those at your table. You have placed your order and are eagerly awaiting your meal. So far, so good, the experience meets your expectations. The plates arrive, and you can’t wait to taste the first bite, which ends up to be a mild disappointment. The medium-rare steak is actually medium to well done. No matter what part of this experience doesn’t meet your expectations, you won’t likely be giving the restaurant a five-star review, correct?
These same four components relate to any experience in higher education as well. Whether it is a student service encounter, a classroom discussion, or a fraternity party on campus, they all contribute to a students sense of belonging, and therefore, commitment to an institution. Because of this belief, I asked four simple questions of the student cohort I met with to find out what they believe the overall undergraduate experience will be like this fall. The first question I asked was, “What do you think the College or University will be like, what are you most looking forward to, and what makes you nervous about entering this journey?” Every single student responded that higher education would provide them with freedom, which they are eagerly awaiting. Specifically, the freedom to choose the classes and course of study they want (unlike high school) to contribute to society how they want; the freedom to manage their own time and their own lives (without the help of parents and teachers); and the freedom to be responsible for their own thoughts and actions (good, bad and ugly). Ironically, what they were the most nervous about was also the freedom they just described. The second question I asked was, “What do you think the faculty, staff, and students you will encounter at the chosen College or University will be like?” Some students said that the student body would be extremely diverse because of the location or type of institution it was (specifically research or public) and they expected the faculty and staff to be reflective of that diversity, not just ethnically, racially, and culturally, but by bringing unique perspectives to the dialogs on campus based on their unique experiences. Others thought that the student body might be relatively homogeneous for the same reasons stated above, which would also be reflected in the faculty and staff. The third question I asked was, “What types of programs, courses, and activities do you anticipate being involved in, and what do you think it will be like?” The answers received were quite varied, but many said that they thought they would be involved in community service, as well as study abroad, and internships focused on real-world experiences and issues. Several students intended to enter higher education undeclared and thought that this experience would help them discern their future path in life. Several students were interested in playing a varsity or intramural sport, while others thought they would be involved in student leadership and organizations that helped with the discernment process. None of the students said they were interested in joining a Greek organization or other more social clubs and organizations.
While the information I gathered from this discussion was interesting enough given the current proliferation of “bulldozer parenting,” these students seem to represent the Gen Z characteristics identified to be independent, self-confident, and autonomous. However, this group of students may not be representative of a larger cross-section of traditional-aged students across the nation because they all attended a Catholic High School in the Midwest. It does appear, though, that they expect their undergraduate experience to be exactly what higher education is set up to deliver: to provide young adults with the freedom to discern their future calling; provide them with the education and skills to be successful in their chosen fields; and provide opportunities to be well-rounded contributing members of our society. How hard is that, right?
My final question to these members of the class of 2023 was, “Did you choose the institution based on these assumptions of what your experience will be?” to which they all answered yes, aligning with my theory that a complete experience is comprised of perceptions, people, programs, and place. I intend to ask them whether their perceptions matched the reality they experienced after the fall semester ends, and they return for the break between semesters. Check back to our website, I’ll keep you posted.
Continue the conversation…share your view and comments below.