February 2009


New York, NY - February 18, 2009 - A generational collision is shocking American colleges and universities into rethinking how they operate, attract students, even how they teach.

Higher education is challenged to serve a melting pot of Baby Boomers (born between 1943 and 1960), Gen X’ers (their children and younger siblings) and Millennials (born since 1982) all inhabiting campuses at the same time and each cohort with its own needs and demands.

A new book released by the TIAA-CREF Institute, “Generational Shockwaves and the Implications for Higher Education,” focuses on managing the convergence of multiple generations of students, faculty and administrators, all with different values, perspectives and priorities.

Edited by Donald Heller, Professor of Education, Senior Scientist and Director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at The Pennsylvania State University and Madeleine d’Ambrosio, Vice President and Executive Director of the TIAA-CREF Institute, the book is an outcome of the Institute’s ongoing partnership with the higher education community. It includes chapters authored by prominent higher education thought leaders and represents the contributions of more than 100 others who shared their perspectives at the 2007 TIAA-CREF Institute Higher Education Leadership Conference.

The results point to a balancing act never before required by higher education.

Starting With Baby Boomers

The sheer number of Baby Boomers transformed the American higher education system in the 1960s. Now they are the core of higher education’s faculty and administration and many may leave academia just as demand for higher education is growing and an increasing number of foreign-born faculty are returning to their home countries.

Baby Boomers may also affect higher education in another way. A recent AARP study suggests that 73 percent of adults over age 50 anticipate having a new interest during retirement—translating into as many as 60 or 70 million people who may be looking to colleges and universities for new learning experiences.

Gen X’ers Have Different Priorities

Gen X’ers (born between 1961 and 1981), children of rising divorce and day care, have now become the majority of first-year college parents. More than previous generations, Gen X parents have demanded standards for schools, teachers and students and data to measure achievement. They want transparency: full and immediate access to all information about their children.

Balancing work-life and family is key for Gen X’ers and universities are responding, including offering updated maternity and paternity leave programs, on-campus childcare facilities and other services.

Gen X’ers embrace risk and are sometimes referred to as the “greatest entrepreneurial generation in U.S. history.” In general, they view education as a less prestigious career field. Those in academe expect to change jobs frequently throughout their career, rather than stay at one institution, adding to workforce management challenges facing universities. To aid recruitment and retention, universities are offering flex time, modified duties, job sharing, and teleconferencing as an alternative to in-person meetings.

Now The Millennials

Millennials (born since 1982) are “generally upbeat, team-oriented, and confident about their future.”

Millennial college students are more adept with and more dependent on technology, more practical and more oriented toward a career and making money. They read less but are more visual and interactive in the way they learn. Unlike Boomers, Millennials seek teamwork and protection against risk. They are less edgy than Gen X’ers.

Non-cash benefits, from health insurance to pensions, will grow in importance among Millennials and employers may find it easier to cultivate long-term loyalty within this group.

New strategies to reach Millennials include web-based efforts such as student-run online magazines with pod-cast interviews of students, student blogs giving prospective undergrads a first hand look at life on campus, instant messaging for recruiters, use of Facebook to support the admissions process, and campus tours on YouTube.

What does this means for learning?

“We must shift from linear presentation to hypermedia and from emphasizing instructing to emphasizing discovery,” says one contributor to the book. “Education must shift from teachers who present one size fits all to customized learning, from being the main source of answers to being a guide.”

With the advent of web-based learning, students today have many more higher education options; they can take courses at colleges and universities around the world and they can choose the medium that best suits their education needs, posing yet another challenge to higher education.

Higher education must embrace the complexities presented by the differences among generations and find ways to effectively respond to and communicate with each group.

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About the TIAA-CREF Institute
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