Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student by Arthur Levine, Diane R. Dean (review)
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Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean. Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012. xxiv, 227 pp. Hardcover: $40.00. ISBN 978-0-470-37629-4.

Much has been written about the current generation of college students, the cohort born in the late 1980s and early 1990s that is often referred to as Millennials (Howe & Strauss, 2000). Unfortunately, a great deal of the media coverage focusing on this generation has relied upon gross generalizations and even stereotypes, earning this body of work substantial criticism (i.e., Hoover, 2009).

Scholars and students of higher education, as well as administrators and faculty members, must rely less on spin about the current generation and more on evidence and data that carefully analyze the motivations and worldviews of today’s students.

Fortunately, Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean draw upon substantial national survey data as well as numerous focus groups and interviews to construct a nuanced portrait of today’s students in Generation on a Tightrope. The authors skillfully place global and national events in the context of contemporary students’ lives and how these events have shaped students’ views and preferences.

The third of Levine’s books to describe a generation of college students (Levine, 1980; Levine & Cureton, 1998), this volume draws upon multiple sources: national undergraduate surveys conducted in 1969, 1976, 1993, and 2009; focus groups and interviews at campuses throughout the country; and surveys of senior student affairs officers (pp. 205–208). While the book brims with survey results and direct quotations from students and administrators, Levine and Dean’s interpretations make sense of these data.

Chapter 1 highlights the differences between parents of today’s college students, who are immigrants to a digital world, and today’s students, who are the first digital natives. Growing up with technology they take for granted, students enter institutions that the authors argue are woefully behind in adapting to a digital world that deemphasizes fixed time, location, and passive learning in favor of active, engaged learning at any time and anywhere—the kind of learning that today’s students expect but do not often find in college.

Corresponding to this conclusion, a surprising finding of the research is that, while the researchers expected that the September 11 attacks would be the most formative events for these students, they instead rated the advent of the World Wide Web as most significant.

The second chapter focuses on the academic climate for today’s students. Survey data illustrate that while college students have always enrolled in part to find a job upon graduation, today’s students are more utilitarian than ever. This finding helps explain the growing popularity of business majors; students may not be any more passionate about business than previous generations but perceive a path to a stable career that provides a secure living.

A full two-thirds of student surveyed said the key benefit of a college degree is to increase one’s earning power, up from 44% expressing that view in 1976 and 57% in 1993 (p. 39). In addition, these students take longer to earn their degrees as they simultaneously work more hours at part- and full-time jobs. They expect—and often receive—high grades, as grade inflation continues and as students (and parents) all but demand high marks from professors. Only 7% of students in 1969 reported a grade point average of A- or higher, a figure that climbed to 41% percent in 2009 (p. 46).

The authors explore student life in the third chapter, focusing largely on ways in which technology is changing social life and increasingly removing it from the physical campus. Students use social media to share information about themselves that they believe is private, often with newfound “friends” online who may not deserve their trust. As a result of social media use, administrators report that students have weak social skills and tend to communicate more effectively online than [End Page 280] in person, though their expectations of immediate responses to online communication may frustrate faculty members—what one dean referenced as typifying the “I want it now” generation (p. 75).

Higher education scholars have...