Born Digital: Meet the college class of 2017

Eighteen-year-olds headed off to college for the first time this fall were mostly born in 1995—the year Yahoo was founded—and have never known life without the internet. In the series “Born Digital,” Yahoo News will explore the ways the college experience is being transformed by this new generation: from how undergrads nab jobs and internships to the way they interact with professors and even how they date.

Researchers who have mined survey data on college freshmen and high school seniors that goes back to the 1970s still don’t know how constant access to technology is defining or shaping this born digital generation of students. But social scientists have identified key differences in the values and habits of today’s undergrads that represent sharp breaks from the attitudes on college campuses of the past.

The current crop of college students study less, are from wealthier families, volunteer more and are more concerned about their financial future than college students decades ago, the data show. Students today are also more likely to display narcissistic traits and believe they will be successful in the future, even as they also report higher levels of volunteering and concern for the environment than previous generations of college-aged kids.

They are also attending college at a time when more and more Americans from increasingly diverse backgrounds are choosing to do so. As of 2010, 21 million people were enrolled in college, a 37 percent increase from just 10 years earlier. The class of 2017 will also be significantly more diverse and female than those of generations past: Women now almost make up nearly 60 percent of students on campus, and white students make up just 61 percent of undergrads now, compared to 83 percent in 1976.

Here are some of the emerging trends that may come to define the class of 2017.

Shaped by a recession—and stressed about college’s cost

Today’s undergrads came of age during the recession that began in 2007, which may help explain their self-reported feelings of financial anxiety and increased desire to become wealthy in the future.

In 2012, more college freshmen than ever before (87.9 percent) said getting a better job was an important reason to go to college. An all time high of 74.6 percent also rated making more money a key benefit of college, while 81 percent rated “being very well off financially” as an essential or very important personal goal, another high water mark.

Some experts have cast this increasing emphasis on wealth and future finances as indicative of the younger generation’s superficiality. But given the skyrocketing cost of college over the past few decades and the slow economic recovery, it makes sense that college kids today are keeping a closer eye on their pocketbooks.

The financial worry they’re experiencing is eating into their academics. Nearly a third of college freshmen last year surveyed by the National Survey of Student Engagement agreed with the statement “financial concerns have interfered with my academic performance.” (The average student debt load for undergrads rose to $26,000 last year.) Sixty percent worried they wouldn’t have enough money for regular expenses.

Even so, 73 percent of students agreed that college was a good investment and a record share of high school students rate a college degree as key to a prosperous life, perhaps explaining why they are willing to experience the stress of financial uncertainty.

Studying Less, Using Technology More

As of 2012, the average college student spent just 15 hours per week studying, a big drop from decades past, according to research done by two University of California economics professors. According to their research, the average student at a four-year college in 1961 hit the books for 24 hours each week.

But the big drop off in studying is not necessarily because college students are partying more. For one thing, technology has most likely sped up some of the process of schoolwork: Typing a paper on a laptop, with its handy “delete” button, is much faster than using a typewriter, and so is looking up research papers online instead of navigating a library’s Dewey Decimal system.

But it’s unlikely technology is streamlining studying so much that students have an extra 10 hours a week to kill. One possible culprit is procrastination, which is on the rise for Americans of all ages over the past three decades, according to research by Piers Steel. About a third of 160,000 undergraduates surveyed in 2008 said they frequently or always struggled with the problem of not being able to sit down and do their work. While college kids of all generations could daydream and doodle during class, the temptations of the internet surely add to this issue: about two thirds of college students admitted to using social media during class in a 2012 NSSE survey, with 39 percent of freshmen saying they “frequently” did so.

Yet another explanation for the decline in study time may be that college kids are increasingly worried about their finances, and thus spend more of their time working at jobs to help defray college’s high costs.

All of this may contribute to a problem pinpointed by higher education experts Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, who write in “Academically Adrift” that 45 percent of American students showed “no significant gains in learning” after two years of college. After four years, 36 percent of students in their sample had not improved their writing or analytic skills. Their research was based on following more than 3,000 students on 29 campuses, and administering them a Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that measures writing, analytical and problem-solving skills.

Narcissism or youthful optimism?

Multiple studies have shown that today’s college students say they are more confident in their own abilities and future success than the Baby Boomer generation that went to college in the 1970s.

San Diego State University Professor Jean Twenge wrote in her book “Generation Me” that Gen Xers born after 1970 and “millennials” born in the 1980s and 90s display much higher self regard, lower civic-mindedness and an increased interest in fame than the baby boomer generation that was born between 1945 and 1970. (Twenge draws these conclusions in part from the American Freshman Survey, which has been asking large samples of college freshmen similar questions since 1965.)

Students in the 90s and 2000s were much more likely to describe themselves as individualistic, self-sufficient and having “strong personalities” than those from the 60s and 70s were. They are also much more likely to rate their academic abilities highly and predict they will complete graduate school and land high-paying, professional jobs. (In 2006, nearly 70 percent of college freshmen ranked themselves in the top of their class in academic ability and drive to succeed.) Undergrads are also more likely than students from previous generations to agree with statements such as “I have often met people who were supposed to be experts who were no better than I.”

But the crop of young people who are going off to college in recent years are breaking this mold, slightly. Twenge found in a more recent study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science that high school students surveyed between 2008 and 2010 showed more concern for others and for the environment than young people who were surveyed between 2004 and 2006 did. Recent college freshmen and high school seniors were also more likely to say they have volunteered and plan to do community service while in college. Twenge concluded that the effect of the recession has increased collectivist and altruistic feelings, though she sticks to her controversial thesis that recent generations display more narcissistic traits than boomers did.

Others have questioned whether the longitudinal surveys Twenge relies upon are a good way to gauge change. “I think undeniably there are generational changes,” said Brent Roberts, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois who has challenged Twenge’s conclusions on narcissism. “Whether those changes are captured in a survey like the [American Freshman Survey] is an interesting question.” Roberts points out that the demographics of college students have changed dramatically over the past four decades, making changes harder to track. (Twenge says she is able to control for these changes.)

Roberts also criticizes Twenge for taking into account the fact that older generations rate the younger generation as more narcissistic than theirs, a trend he says has been going on since time immemorial. “You just don’t remember how much of a prick you were, that’s the way memory systems work,” he said.

Explore the entire Born Digital series from Yahoo News: