by Ron Urban, Registrar

Anyone who is even passingly familiar with descriptions of the different generational cohorts popularized by the media today cannot help but notice contrasting terms that describe them. For example, “Baby Boomers” are characterized as the ultimate conformists. “Generation X” members, born in the early 1970s, are depicted as mistrusting social institutions, rejecting rules and being independent and self-reliant. “Generation Y folks”, or Millennials, born in the late ’80s and early 1990s, are said to be very tech savvy, desirous of being part of a team, displaying narcissistic tendencies, having a sense of unbounded entitlement and being emotionally dependent on others. Of course, one cannot help but wonder if such descriptions in any way apply to Whitman College’s most precious resource – its own generations of students. As someone who has served Whitman for 28 years as registrar, institutional researcher and instructor, I have had a unique position from which to view different generations of Whitman students, and I am eager to share my reflections with you this afternoon. During my time at Whitman have there been major shifts in students’ backgrounds and behaviors? What changes have I seen take place? What has remained the same?

In order to refresh my recollections of student life over the past 28 years or so and to help organize my thoughts, I looked at data on students who graduated in 1985 (my first Commencement at Whitman), and compared their characteristics with those of 2012 graduates. (I have refrained from using information for this year’s graduating class, because the numbers still have not been finalized, and I hope to spare any Class of 2013 members the possibility of parental embarrassment.) I also held conversations with faculty and staff colleagues and asked them to assess student body changes over the years.

First, let’s look at some numbers. One possible change over 28 years, although it doesn’t relate directly to students’ behavior, is the numerical size of the graduating class. In sheer numbers, the 400-plus member 2012 class is more than one and a half times larger than the Class of ’85. In terms of revenue, this growth surely must mean that CFO Peter Harvey is doing the Happy Dance.

The next quite obvious change involves the gender ratio. The class of ’85 was 55, percent men and 45 percent women, whereas the class of 2012 saw a reversal with 60 percent women and 40 percent men. The question of why males recently are not as attracted to a liberal arts education to the same degree as females is a conundrum that the Admission Office here, like offices across the entire U.S., is trying to solve. And I have it on good authority that many women students at Whitman also are wishing the admission professionals all the best in this regard.

Another substantial change pertains to the racial and ethnic composition of the two graduating classes. The distribution for 1985 indicates that 91 percent of the graduates were Caucasian, whereas the corresponding figure for the Class of ’12 is 68 percent Caucasian. Clearly, there has been a major shift in ethnicity among Whitman students over the years, and to a certain extent this mirrors broader trends across the country.

Shifting quickly to academic comparisons between the two classes, in 1985 the overall graduating class cumulative grade point average was 2.996. By 2012, it had climbed to 3.491. This change possibly may be related to the Class of 2012’s appreciably higher verbal and math SAT scores.

Curiously, perhaps one of the most dramatic academic shifts between the graduates of 1985, and last year’s class involves the percentage of students earning Honors in Course, sometimes called Latin Honors. In 1985 a total of 24 students, or 9 percent of the graduating class, received summa, magna, or cum laude distinction. By 2012, the corresponding figure jumped to nearly 40 percent.

The academic numbers also show that there has been comparatively little movement in the choice of major fields of study for the two classes, with most students majoring in the social sciences. However, there has been a noteworthy change in the number of women in math and science. In 1985, women represented 45 percent of the total graduates, yet only a third of those majors were women. By contrast, in 2012 women represented 60 percent of the graduating class and accounted for 52 percent of math and science majors.

So, we can see from the above numbers that some of the characteristics of the student body have changed over the years. Now we must ask: Have there been any corresponding shifts in the personal behaviors and attitudes of Whitman students over the years or in the choices that they have made? Especially in terms of the faculty’s perceptions of students’ academic performance, and perhaps consistent with the gains in Whitman GPA and SAT scores, my academic colleagues suggest that today’s students seem to perform more effectively in the classroom than those of the ’80s. Two respondents asserted that current students’ writing and reasoning skills have improved substantially and that present-day students have a greater sense of intellectual engagement and are more serious.

Next, today’s students are engaged in a greater number and variety of academic activities. For example, close to 40 percent of last year’s class studied abroad, whereas the figure for the 1980s was just about half that number. Expanded student involvement in more varied academic activities perhaps represents the future of higher education. One observer claims that the kinds of adaptive skills learned by students outside of the classroom, but still within the purview of college, may be just as important for later success in life as the information acquired in the classroom.

The next change that I want to mention I’ll call the “ascendancy of women”.  I’ve already pointed out that women now constitute the majority of recent graduates, but women also appear to be far less constrained these days from speaking up in class and consequently are much more academically visible at Whitman, whether writing poetry, analyzing contemporary social phenomena or working with a faculty science mentor on publishable research. Moreover, women today are demonstrating much greater self-confidence and poise in the classroom, on the athletic fields and in campus leadership positions. In my opinion, this is probably the single most distinguishing characteristic between 1985’s graduates and those of today.

Not surprisingly, the current generation of students differs substantially from their predecessors in terms of digital communication. Today’s students are constantly texting their friends, calling on cell phones, surfing the web and becoming absorbed in video games. This behavior was non-existent in the ’80s, and has led some experts to conclude that today’s students consequently lack the necessary face-to-face social skills to be successful in life. However, given our current students’ considerable engagement in activities within the Whitman community, it seems unlikely that they are not learning how to interact with others.

Regrettably, compared with 1985, last year’s graduates experienced greater emotional fragility and vulnerability. One professor with whom I spoke stated that our students bring their suburban anxieties with them to Whitman, and combined with the academic pressure cooker of the college, these students are especially susceptible to burn out. They therefore become increasingly dependent on external sources of emotional support.

To summarize and conclude, I return to our original question: Are recent graduates really that different from those of 1985? We’ve seen that there are indeed appreciable differences: Class sizes are larger, females outnumber males, racial and ethnic diversity is greater and today’s students appear to come from relatively greater affluence and privilege. Additional differences include substantially greater academic achievement for today’s students along with their demands for recognition for having done so, the particularly impressive academic successes and leadership gains of women students and substantial student engagement in new academic activities. Behaviorally, we recently have seen greater student involvement in current social issues – particularly environmental issues, student obsession with digital technology and an increase in psychologically needy students.

However, despite all these differences, what remains invariant through the years, as one of my colleagues put it, is that Whitman students are fundamentally very decent and nice people. They are considerate and sensitive, perhaps excessively driven, but also amazingly supportive and respectful of one another. They tend to form communal bonds with each other that last a lifetime. Personally speaking, one of the greatest rewards that Whitman College has provided for me is the privilege of working with such amazing students over the years.  They truly are delightful people, and I just don’t see that changing, despite the experts’ attempts at providing catchy labels. Class of 2013, I wish you all the best!