After the 2014 U.S. Midterm elections, the Daily Show aired a piece about how the elections looked in comparison to past results. While observing how comments of the Democratic Party being in a shambles mirrored comments about the Republicans in 2012, Jon Stewart makes an aside remark about context:
That joke was brought to you by context. Context…look at how silly the world would be without context.
This kind of biting sarcasm is a hallmark of the Daily Show, but it tends to be missing from higher education discussions (except on Twitter, of course). The biggest bone I have to pick about the lack of context in higher ed has to do with student segmentation.
To put it simply, there is no uniform definition of “a college student”. Now this may be obvious to some and nitpicky to others, but I feel it’s a salient point to make. Why? Because any talking head, survey, or product claim about students really needs to have segmentation context in order to be relevant. Headlines like “what college students need to know” or “where college students want to work” are meaningless without it.
Let me first point out what I think is a great attempt at segmenting the college student. The folks at The Parthenon Group* published a report a few months ago called “The Differentiated University” (report or infographic). In it, they define six segments of the college student (Aspiring Academics, Career Accelerators, Academic Wanderers, etc.). The biggest takeaway is that about half of the students fall into the traditional 18-24 bucket and the other half tend to be non-traditional adults. To me, that’s the main point that gets lost on many folks. The assumption that when we hear “college student”, we are only referring to a degree-seeking 19-year old who lives on a college campus. That’s a fallacy.
*While I had no affiliation with Parthenon or this report, I was asked by Parthenon to participate in a higher ed analytics council in December 2014
Last month, Educause published a report titled “ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2014“. It had some interesting findings on students’ views on and uses of technology in higher education. Educause does a thorough job of explaining the findings and delving into the methodology. However, they also published an infographic for the tl;dr crowd, and that’s where the context issue comes into play. The report specifies that 73% of the respondents are 18-24 and 81% are full-time students. That skews from the segmentation in the Parthenon report meaning that the results are likely more representative of traditional campus-based college students. So when the infographic makes statements like “Technology is embedded into students’ lives, and students are generally inclined to use technology”, we run into potential generalization issues.
I know that the root cause here is the Buzzfeed-like short attention span of today’s audiences. This is the case even in higher ed…anyone who has ever had to write a catchy title for their conference presentation or use an image of a popular comedian to try and draw in an audience for their blog post knows what I’m talking about. The takeaway should be that when one is referring to college students, do your best to keep the context and segmentation in mind so as not to add to the dearth of generalizations.