Americans flunk quick about today’s college students
Perceptions of college students often evoke images of teenagers, residence halls, parties, and football. With the popularity of college athletics and movies such as John Belushi’s Animal House, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, Will Ferrell’s Old School, and Kirsten Dunst’s Bring It On, it is not surprising that college students are frequently stereotyped as lazy, immature, and irresponsible people only interested in partying. Hoverman (2005) noted in The Collegian that media portrayals of college students reinforce widely held stereotypes. “You have the jock in flip-flops that is dating the sorority girl in a pencil skirt, who is friends with the tattooed-slacker who rarely comes to class” (para. 2).
Cognitive psychologists discuss how such characterizations can result from schemas— characteristic features people use to organize and interpret information and place people into categories (Tyler, Burns, & Kathleen, 2007). Accurate schemas are beneficial; they help individuals understand the world around them. However, history has shown that inaccurate schemas can foster negative stereotypes and biased behavior. African Americans as well as women suffered from decades of prejudice and discrimination at the hands of people with biased perceptions. Seemingly harmless beliefs created resistance to important legislative initiatives, such as allowing minorities to vote and/or run for political office. Left unchecked, such stereotypical beliefs can adversely influence an individual’s personal and professional opportunities. Is this America’s image of college students? A University of Phoenix Research Institute survey shows the misperception is widespread. College students are frequently stereotyped as lazy, immature, and irresponsible people only interested in partying.
President Barack Obama’s (2010) goals of helping an additional 8 million Americans earn degrees and certificates, and having the highest share of college graduates worldwide, intensifies the importance of accurately understanding the characteristics
of 21st-century college students. Before educational institutions, business organizations, and lawmakers can develop effective programs and policies, leaders must clearly understand today’s college students. Are they the stereotypical teenagers who immediately enroll in college after high school, live off Mom and Dad, and spend their time playing sports and partying—or has the face of the 21st-century college student changed?