College students are always changing — the careers, causes and celebrities that preoccupy this year’s freshmen will be replaced by the time they’re seniors. But for those planning a career or working in student services, a few characteristics of this college-going generation merit a closer look. Here, three faculty members in the Master of Arts in College Student Development program at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, share what’s on the minds of today’s college students.

They’re concerned about their safety.

For a glimpse of what’s on college students’ minds, just turn on the news. Today’s students are concerned about the threat of violence on campus and want to know how to handle an “active shooter” situation. They’re also thinking and talking about sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking — and when these conversations happen, a growing number of students can draw from their own pre-college experiences of being stalked or assaulted.

They’re accustomed to instant gratification.

This generation of college students grew up with smartphones that let them find immediate answers to any question. They’re used to ordering things online and having them delivered overnight. “They are a generation that wants things now, but in higher education there’s not a lot of things you get ‘right now,’” says Alicia Vela, the director of Residence Life at St. Edward’s. “Things take time, there’s a process. And I think they’re challenged by that.”

An increasing number have mental health issues.

In both the community college and four-year college environment, more students are arriving with mental health challenges that affect both their academic and personal lives.

Some see career placement as the sole purpose of college.

“Society is starting to question what higher education is about,” says Rich Parsells, associate professor and director of the Master of Arts in College Student Development program. “A lot of the focus now is on career preparation, as compared to developing the whole person.” Other outcomes of college — interpersonal skills, values, moral judgment, critical thinking, communication and civic engagement — are often perceived as less important than professional skills.

But others lack focus entirely.

On the other hand, many young students at community colleges are there because their parents have urged them to enroll — yet the students themselves lack motivation and career direction. That’s what Tim Self, the dean of student services at Austin Community College’s Northridge campus, has observed in his career, which has spanned several community college systems. “One of the hardest things to do — yet the most enjoyable — is trying to help those students develop a vision for why they’re here, and to know what the benefit of college is,” Self says.

First-generation students need extra support.

As college populations diversify, more students today are the first in their family to attend college. While this is good news, such students often need extra help navigating the unfamiliar environment of higher education. For instance, academic advisors need to be more proactive in checking in with such students to make sure they’re on track.

And to persist through the challenges of college, students need to sense that professional staff members care about them. “They also need people who are in support of them so they feel they belong and they matter,” Parsells says. “Otherwise you’ll have higher access to college, but you’ll have more dropouts.”

The part-time weekend Master of Arts in College Student Development program, which is completed in two years, at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, prepares graduates for careers to help college students reach their full potential.

Robyn Ross is a freelance writer.

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