The College Students You Aren't Reading About

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When the Pew Research Center released the recent finding that a majority of Republican voters believe higher education has a negative effect on the country, academics tended to react with breast-beating. But in one case, the response was chest-thumping instead. An editorial by Peter Wood published in The Chronicle of Higher Education brandished the title, “Colleges Are to Blame for the Contempt in Which They’re Held.”

Dr. Wood is president of The National Association of Scholars (NAS), an organization that describes itself as “founded to confront the rise of campus political correctness.” The Association’s website lists no fewer than 60 “issues” of concern on college campuses, including “anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, and anti-freedom orientation,” “neglect of important books,” and “dorm-based indoctrination.” I’m not sure what that last one is, but based on my own experience as a college president, I would guess it’s more likely about chugging beer from little red cups than force-feeding Chairman Mao’s little red book.

Reading Dr. Wood’s editorial leads me to wonder what his experience of today’s college campus is. Having served in his administrative role at NAS since 2009, perhaps he hasn’t spent much time on a campus lately. That might account for the wildly inaccurate picture he paints. “American higher education, taken all in all,” Wood claims, “has put itself in opposition to America’s best principles, its most admirable aspirations…and its capacity to create a generation of worthy civic and political leaders.” This sweeping, intemperate condemnation is the stuff of satire, but we’re invited to accept it as fact. Don’t make that mistake.

What’s most disturbing is Wood’s misrepresentation of today’s students. He rails against “the self-indulgent crudity and swinishness of students who impose their own views on their communities,” “campus activists [who] are nihilistic, bitter, mean-spirited, and, of course, self-righteous,” and “students…who have developed contempt for their country and their countrymen.” I have served on college campuses for more than 40 years, including twice in the presidency. The students I know bear no resemblance to Wood’s dyspeptic caricature.

Far from being contemptuous of their country and their fellow citizens or “bitter, mean-spirited and…self-righteous,” this generation of students is notable for their idealism, engagement with their communities (both on and off campus), and their desire to make a positive difference for the future. A widespread interest in entrepreneurism, present on many campuses today, is less often directed toward achieving the zillionaire status of a Gates or Bezos and more often focused on improving our world through social entrepreneurship.

Isaac Holeman is a great example. A 2009 graduate of Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, he co-founded the company Medic Mobile while still in college. Using cell phones, Medic Mobile’s software enables health workers to reach and serve people who previously had no access to care. Beginning in Africa, Medic Mobile now supports healthcare in 23 countries, with 12,000 health workers serving over eight million patients. Isaac is an extraordinary young man. But he is not alone. On our college and university campuses today, students are creating new materials capable of absorbing oil spills, designing adaptive technologies to assist those with disabilities, and helping local teachers to ignite young students’ interest in math and science.

Perhaps most distinctive about this generation of college students is their desire to serve. For example, an increasingly popular type of course is “community-based learning.” Classes are designed to link the classroom curriculum with a practical need in the local community, enabling students to put their learning into action. A writing class, for example, might draft grant proposals on behalf of a local non-profit organization. A biology class might collect data on regionally important environmental issues. St. Lawrence University, a liberal arts college in the North Country region of New York, offered 17 such courses last year, enrolling 275 students, engaging 30 community partners, and logging more than 7,000 hours of activity in the community. This is not atypical.

Examples of this orientation toward service abound; I’ll focus on just two: one from my own experience on a single campus and another a project that includes many colleges.

The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio—where I served as interim president—has developed a very successful partnership with the local hospital. The Community Care Network, which began in 2013, was designed to promote wellness, reduce the need for potentially unnecessary procedures and hospitalizations, and promote delivery of evidenced based care, while also giving Wooster students valuable field experience. The students, after a rigorous training program, work with carefully chosen patients who need companionship and encouragement in maintaining a healthier lifestyle. After the first year, patients enrolled in the program had a 26% reduction of emergency room use and 51% reduction in hospital readmissions.

On a broader scale, AARP has partnered with the Council of Independent Colleges (a membership organization of more than 650 small to mid-sized independent colleges and universities) to offer grants for a program called, “Intergenerational Connections: Students Serving Older Adults.” For this somewhat unusual concept, the funders were unsure what the level of interest would be. In fact, 92 colleges submitted proposals. Buoyed by this interest, AARP increased its funding, so that 21 projects were able to go forward. Students will engage with older adults in a variety of ways, from working in a community garden (to provide nutritious food) to teaching basic computer and internet literacy skills (to combat social isolation and assist in income-generation), to serving as health coaches. All of the projects exemplify the interest among this generation of students in service to others.

“Self-indulgent” and “mean-spirited” students with “contempt for their country and their countrymen”? No, Dr. Wood—this is a student generation actively seeking to serve their fellow citizens and aspiring to make the world a better place. Just the type of young people we can expect to become “worthy civic and political leaders.”