College student studying

How the college experience has changed

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Generation X is often still viewed as perpetually floundering twenty-somethings. The truth is Xers are in their late 30s to early 50s. And guess what? The generation who popularized college movies like “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Animal House” is now sending their own wave of bright-eyed freshman off to school. Welcome to campus, Generation Edge! Of course, things have changed since the days Gen X was pulling all-nighters and partying hard.

Moving in

Generation X: Xers generally had a light load on move-in day. In addition to clothing and some posters, they probably had a TV with rabbit ears and a portable tape deck or CD player. And maybe a whiteboard to leave their roommates messages about where to meet up later.

Generation Edge: Just do a cursory search for “college packing checklist,” and it’s easy to see things have gotten a bit more burdensome for Edgers. Smart TV, microwave, mini-fridge and perhaps a gaming console for decompressing are baseline nowadays. Additionally, Pinterest has upped the ante when it comes to dorm room décor. Stores like Target dedicate entire sections of their stores to “college essentials,” catering to the desire to make your dorm room your own. But these days freshmen leave the whiteboard at home, as texting and social media are the obvious choices for staying connected.

Taking notes

Generation X: In the 80s and early 90s, if you had access to a computer it definitely was not light enough to toss in your backpack – most likely you waited in line at the library to log on. Taking notes meant you took a notebook and a pen to class (and probably made plenty of doodles in the margins).

Generation Edge: Generation Edge is reaping the benefits of 25 years of technological advances in processing power and portability. Tablets, laptops and even phones are ubiquitous in college classrooms and have made writing notes by hand pretty much a thing of the past for most students. With powerful mics and speech-to-text technology, taking notes may soon become obsolete. So if you walk into a classroom and see students buried in their phones or other devices, don’t assume they aren’t paying attention. Many students use the ever-present Wi-Fi connection to get real-time answers to questions they may have, seeking clarification from Google or from other students in the class via group chats.

Hitting the books

Generation X: For as long as there have been college students, there have been all-nighters. For Xers, their study sessions had to take place in a library. The internet wasn’t readily available until the late 90s, so a lot of research happened on microfilm machines. Plus, while library books could be checked out and used back at the dorm, many reference books couldn’t leave the physical library building. As for writing those dreaded twenty-page papers, many students didn’t come to college with a computer. This meant typing and printing term papers in a computer lab.

Generation Edge: Cramming for exams and writing papers until the wee hours of the morning…none of this has changed. However, the location of these study sessions has shifted. Thanks to technology and nearly universal web connectivity, studying can happen anywhere and everywhere. According to a recent study, 70% of college students own smartphones, and most use them for schoolwork on a regular basis.1 College students have a plethora of apps available to them, designed to help them get organized, collaborate with peers and remain productive no matter where they are or what time it is.

Going out on the town

Generation X: It seems college students have always made the time to play hard after working hard. Dancing at clubs, cheering at sports bars, partying at Greek houses, rocking out at music festivals…this list could have been made today or 25 years ago. The main difference is that, generally, for Gen X, downtime had to be planned a bit more in advance. You’d have to get specific about meeting times and places for you and your crew. And once you were out you were more or less unreachable, so last-minute adjustments were difficult.

Generation Edge: For better or for worse, plans have become less solid over the years. It’s not uncommon to send or receive texts ranging from “Running ten minutes late” all the way up to “Hey not feeling it tonight, Netflix instead?” It seems that general etiquette around meeting up has adjusted to keep pace with technology. What would have been unspeakably rude in the 80s (like leaving your dorm five minutes after you were supposed to meet up with a friend downtown) is a little more acceptable now (as long as you keep the lines of communication open).

Paying for it

Generation X: You’ve probably heard younger Millennials and members of Gen Edge bemoaning the astronomical price tag on a college education today. But is it really all that different than it was in the 80s? According to Gordon Wadsworth, author of “The College Trap,” “…if the cost of college tuition was $10,000 in 1986, it would now cost the same student over $21,500 when adjusted for inflation. But instead education is $59,800 or over 2 ½ times the inflation rate.”2 This means that education dollars don’t go as far as they did 30 years ago. Inflation simply doesn’t account for skyrocketing tuition rates.

Generation Edge: As you can see, students today are absorbing higher college costs than their predecessors. So, while a summer job can provide valuable experience, that alone is not going to put much of a dent in total college costs. This key difference is important for parents and students alike to keep in mind, especially when it comes to changing expectations around financial responsibility.

Gen Xers, while you’re helping your college-bound freshmen pack, you may be reminiscing your own “Back in my day” adventures. But remember while technology is rapidly changing the college experience, many things remain the same. Today’s college students, just like those in the 80s, are still trying to avoid morning classes, pulling all-nighters, cheering for their team and most importantly finding their place in the world.

1 Pearson Student Mobile Device Survey, 2015.

2Wadsworth, Gordon H. The College Trap. Atlanta, GA: Financial Aid Information Services, 2007. Print.

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Associated Tags: Advising Across Generations, Education Planning, Saving for College

Traditionalist, before 1946; Baby Boomer, 1946-1964; Generation X, 1965-1979; Millennial, 1980-1995; Generation Edge, after 1995

This information is prepared by an unrelated independent third party, BridgeWorks, and is provided for informational purposes only. Waddell & Reed, Inc., believes the information has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but does not guarantee the accuracy of the information provided.

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