How technology has transformed classes, costs and social lives for college students

Yahoo News

Editor's note: In this video from a live Google+ hangout, Yahoo News spoke with two students and a parent of current students about the changes in the college experience over the last few decades. Their stories are shared below.

University of Maryland student Dana Perry says her dad often gives her the “back in my day” talk to remind her (or “to complain,” she teases) that schooling today is so expensive that her textbooks alone cost more than his entire tuition did in 1970.

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Dana Perry and her dad.

“Parents always say things like that,” Perry, 23, says.

But her research proved he had a point: His tuition at the University of Minnesota for the 1969-70 school year was $399. (About $2,500 in today’s dollars.) Her tab for one semester’s worth of books? $576.47, one of the lower bills she’s paid.

“I am still mad about a required book for my environmental science class, which was so cleverly titled ‘Environmental Science.’ I paid $135 for a used copy and did not use it once,” Perry says.

College costs increase anywhere from two to four percentage points above inflation every year. That means college costs are four times as much as they were two or three decades ago, according to the New America Foundation.

At Maryland’s Baltimore County campus, Perry pays $286 a credit hour. Necessary college accoutrements — laptop, tablet, printer, software and a cell phone— increase the tab. Her dad only used a $20 typewriter and an adding machine to do his coursework.

“It seems parents should have started saving for us back when they were in school,” she says.

‘Competition is cutthroat’

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Nicole Woodhouse after her high school graduation.

Despite the prodigious effort Nicole Woodhouse has thrown into college — including semesters of 18 credit hours, extensive volunteering, and substitute-teacher work — she knows she may still not be able to secure a job when she graduates. When Woodhouse observes fellow students stuffing extra majors, internships and extracurricular activities into already-packed schedules, she sees how competitive the hunt for post-college work has become.

“That competition is cutthroat,” she says.

Woodhouse, a senior majoring in biology and psychology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, says she feels stressed by the pressure to succeed and by the knowledge that a bachelor’s degree may not land her a job.

“I have experienced my fair share of emotional breakdowns because the million activities I am involved in are not enough to put me above my peers,” she says.

Woodhouse, 21, believes that pressure — not just to graduate but to snag accolades, awards and extra degrees — wasn’t something that her parents’ generation worried about.

“Then, employers focused on personality, interview skills, connections, and skill in a particular field,” she says. “My father earned his bachelor's degree in business administration from Old Dominion University in 1988, but he has since worked his way up in the Virginia Beach City Public School's education system through hard work, a good attitude, and his skills. I mean, it makes sense: In our parent's generation (and today), most of what you need to know is taught on the job.”

‘Keep doors open and all four feet on the floor’

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Christina and me, ready for college

When Laurie Jo Miller Farr attended Northeastern University in Boston in the early 1970s, students shouldered enormous responsibility. In addition to a hefty load of classes, many of Farr’s fellow students worked co-op jobs, faced five years of school instead of four and didn’t take summers off. They paid their own tuition and room and board on top of 52 hours of studying a week. They even wore suits to class.

But despite leading very adult-like lives, their experience in the dorms was “positively convent-like compared to campus life today,” Farr, 57, says.

The dorms were single-sex. Upper-class floor captains patrolled the halls. Males visited only during scheduled hours and only in a common room, watched by an attendant with a sign-in/sign-out book.

The rules included: "Keep doors open and all four feet on the floor."

“Yes, Deborah, Jim, Jeff, and I got in trouble, returning from a McDonald's double date after lock-up at 11 p.m.” Farr says. “That meant an appearance before the governing parietal committee and a lockdown. Mind you, I am describing college, not prison. Boyfriends and pot could, and did, get the Boston Police to your door.”

‘There were tears, there were hugs and there was Wi-Fi’

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From left, Marisa, 19, Bill, and his husband, Paul. In back: Sophie, 22, and Meghan, 20.

Bill Dameron started college in 1981. His mother, he remembers, dropped him at the curb of North Carolina’s Greensboro College with just a sack of clothes and a clock radio.

They said goodbye without ceremony. Dameron recalls that she shouted, “Good luck!” while “never removing the cigarette from her mouth as she sped off.”

Thirty years later, he bid farewell to his step-daughter, Meghan, on her first day at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H., in 2011. The Damerons wouldn’t find hasty goodbyes in the school’s syllabus. Meghan's school developed a seven-hour program, as Dameron describes it, “to ease the transition for students and parents.” While he and his husband thought that went overboard, he noticed other parents and their kids took full advantage, posting farewell photos to Facebook.

“There were tears, there were hugs and there was Wi-Fi,” Dameron, 50, says.

Times have changed, indeed.

When he was a student, Dameron didn’t see his mom again until Christmas — “she complained about the beard I had grown,” he notes — while Meghan and her step-father are basically still, albeit virtually, living together as a family. Every day, he can check her grades, read school news and deposit money onto her cash card.

These generational differences in social lives, college costs and technology are a few themes Yahoo News explored for our “Born Digital” series. We invited current students and parents of students to write about how the college experience has changed over the past few decades. Check out excerpted responses below and join us for a live hangout Thursday at 11 a.m. PT / 2 p.m. ET with four of our writers. Check the Yahoo News Google+ page for more information coming this week and join the conversation on Twitter using #BornDigital.

‘I pity them for those lost opportunities’

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Julie BoydCole and Henry at his Eastside High School graduation.

When I headed off to SUNY-Oneonta for college in upstate New York 32 years ago, I was young, excited and completely in the dark about what I was doing and what was in store for me.

Not so for my 18-year-old son Henry, who begins his college career at Boston University this fall to study physics. He took so many Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes in high school that he starts his freshman year with 84 college credits. I had three.

Julie BoydCole, 50, studied communications at SUNY-Oneonta in 1981.

My professors can also ask more of me because of the technological tools that are readily available at my fingertips. For example, my professors will often write exams that will require the use of statistical software during the test. Professors will often design labs or workshop sessions in class that require a research tool to be learned and utilized in order to complete an assignment.

Consequently, technology is a Catch-22 in higher education today: It makes the completion of academic work swifter and more efficient, but it also raises expectations about the amount of work that should be completed by students and the quality of the work that is produced.

Stetson Thacker, 21, is studying biology, chemistry and English at Denison University in Ohio. He will graduate in May.

My 18-year-old daughter, Vivian, who is enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, listens sympathetically to reminiscences of my four years on that campus in the 1980s, imagining pioneer days of taking classes without cell phones, the Internet, or computers.

The tedious process of research certainly has improved, as Internet searches beat poring through tomes in UC's Langsam Library. Vivian and her peers can complete their projects without leaving the dorm, or while sipping frappes at Starbucks.

Today's students are deprived of the pleasure of learning outside of the assigned topic and discoveries of music and literature, which become wonderful lifelong diversions. I pity them for those lost opportunities.

Doug Poe, 50, attended the University of Cincinnati in the 1980s.

‘There is no curfew, Mom’

Compared to my parents, our physical social lives have suffered in favor of an online-physical hybrid. Instead of going to the library now, my roommates and I sit together in the living room — on our laptops. If I can't hang out with a group of friends because I have work to do, we will Snapchat each other our activities all night.

I don't have much time for dating, but I've noticed how couples spend less time speaking and more time on their phones when they're in line at Starbucks or at the movie theater.

Phillip Wachowiak is a 19-year-old junior at the University of Michigan, where he studies biomolecular science. He plans to graduate in 2015 and then attend medical school.

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Walker's son, Devon Pankratz.

We expect so much more from our kids today academically, but we let them slide dangerously in other areas. My son can speak Japanese, but he can't seem to grasp the concept that "cleaning up the dishes" includes the pots on the stove and the cutting board on the island. Of course, that won't be a problem at college — he has a meal plan.

Parents are more involved in their kids’ school lives these days. There are more teacher conferences and parents are encouraged to monitor their children's grades online. The result is more knowledge, but less experience. Kids don't get to be responsible for themselves.

Kim Jacobs Walker, 48, graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1997, where she received a bachelor’s in Plan II with a concentration in English. Her son, Devon, 18, will attend Austin College in Sherman, Texas, this fall.

In 2008, during Krissy's senior year in high school, we toured the University of Miami. I was taken aback as we passed students sprawled on the lawn in bikinis, sun-bathing while studying. That would have caused quite a commotion back in my day. The campus police would have declared this indecent exposure! Very risqué!

The day I moved my daughter into her dorm was an education in itself. At 57, I consider myself pretty "hip" and open-minded. I gasped when I realized I was moving my freshman daughter into a coed dorm. My mouth flew open as I watched in amazement young men stroll past females in the halls. During my college days, no freshman ever slept in a building with the opposite sex. That was a privilege reserved for upperclassmen.

A bit shaken, I asked Krissy when her curfew was. She looked at me like I was from the Stone Age.

"There is no curfew, Mom."

Rhonda Manning, 57, graduated in 1977 from Hampton University.

‘Students never see their teachers face to face’

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Starks and her parents at her high school graduation.

When my mom went to college the first time, it was 1988. She was married with three children, so she took some correspondence courses through Liberty University.

"Distance learning is much different from what is it now," she told me. "Instead of using computers, we were sent a bunch of VHS tapes with all the lectures on them. They were so boring, I used to fall asleep trying to listen to them! And we didn't have the convenience of emailing our professors if we had a problem; we had to call to get help."

The process has been completely different for me; just filling out the application to enroll is different. My mother told me she applied to Liberty through the phone, while I applied via online application. Filling out schedules, meeting teachers, and even some advising has been Internet-based so far. (VHS tapes, of course, aren't sent.) All my classes are online, and, in some cases, students never see their teachers face to face.

Jessica Starks, 18, will study English at Itawamba Community College in Mississippi this fall.

For communicating with the outside world, there was a black dial-up pay phone in the hall, but who to call? Cell phones were decades in the future, so the pay phone was mainly for making a collect call home. Otherwise, we had envelopes, postage stamps, and stationery. The only computer we'd ever seen was this massive IBM mainframe where we struggled with impossible Fortran language, punching stackable binary cards that might as well have been hieroglyphics.

The library was installing microfiche readers and Xerox copiers, which felt like "Futurama" compared to carbon paper and the Dewey decimal system. For term papers, the lucky ones like me had an Olivetti-Underwood manual typewriter in a zipped leather carry case gifted from proud parents.

Laurie Jo Miller Farr

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Left to right, Phil, his mother, Susan, his younger brother, Peter, and his father, David.

I rarely go to the undergraduate library. Why bother? I can access all the documents I need from the Internet, the web offers all relevant study material, and if I require a book, I can use Google Books or download an e-book to my laptop. Better yet, the cloud often means I don't need my laptop. On one side of the campus, I can upload an e-book to Google Drive, bike to the other side of campus, and print portions of that same book on another computer — if a hard copy is needed at all.

Phillip Wachowiak

Cell phones have to be the worst attention-stealing culprit in the classroom. While I try to ignore mine, I have grad school classmates who still can't stop texting during seminars. In a class of 20 undergraduates, I'd say at least four are probably paying attention to their phone at any given time, whether it be for text messaging, checking Facebook, or playing games. That means that about a fifth of the class is paying tuition to play with electronic devices and miss most of the lecture.

Lisa Fulgham, a 24-year-old graduate student in English at Mississippi State University, hopes to finish this December.

‘College loans carry some serious interest’

College loans carry some serious interest for those like me who did not receive significant academic scholarships and had to finance their education largely through debt. For each of my four years as an undergraduate, I borrowed around $20,000 per year to pursue my work in business school.

I was a very average student in high school, but quickly realized that this was no longer an option at the price I was paying at Fairfield. I would love to now be a debt-free graduate student pursuing a career in public accounting; however, knowing that I truly had to make my college experience all it could be gave me exactly the kick start that I needed.

Mark Evans, 22, will graduate in May from Fairfield University in Connecticut with a master’s degree in accounting.

A college education is easier to complete now than it was in the 1980s, primarily due to changes in financial aid. I had to drop out of Northeastern University at age 19, with a 3.2 GPA, when I ran out of money in my freshman year. My daughter, Diana, is now 22 and a senior at Lyndon State College, even though I could not afford to send her there.

The good news is that the federal [loan] limits are now more reasonable — a whopping $57,500 for an undergraduate like her! As she is attending a school that costs about $7,500 annually, this means that she does not have to quit due to lack of money, like I did.

The changes in federal financial aid have made obtaining a college degree more attainable for those who could not otherwise afford it. Diana will be graduating next year, with terrific prospects at finding a job in her field. Yes, she will have to pay back the student loans, but at least she will be able to afford to.

D.M. Cogger, 47, began school at Northeastern University in 1984.

‘Competition is cutthroat’

Today's digitized, fast-changing world validates a prediction that then California Gov. Jerry Brown made in 1981 to one of my college classes. He said that 25 percent of us would work in careers that hadn't been invented yet, so focusing on a major wasn't as important as a well-rounded, diverse education.

Now that I have a son in college, a daughter in high school, and Jerry Brown is the governor of California, again, I use Brown's prophetic and wise remarks to illustrate the need for a broad education and an open mind about your future to my kids.

After all, who knows what changes and new jobs the next 30 years will bring?

Dyanne Weiss, 54, graduated from CSU Northridge in California in 1982. Her 19-year-old son studies screenwriting at Emerson College in Boston.

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Leger and his mother, both proud Bearkats.

In 1974, my mom enrolled at Sam Houston with one main purpose: earn her degree in sociology and become a social worker. Back then, going to college wasn't something that seemingly everyone did after high school. Many of her friends found good-paying jobs right after graduating, meaning you only went to college if you knew you needed a certain education for a certain career.

Now, about the only job opportunities you can get right out of high school are fast food and low-level retail, and both of those are minimum-wage with almost no room for promotion or a sizable pay increase. A college education has become less of an option and more of a necessity.

College has almost become the "new high school."

Thomas Leger, 20, will graduate with a degree in philosophy from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, next summer.

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