Identifying the Real Source of Student Entitlement

College graduation season is upon us, at least for institutions running on a semester calendar (sadly, Union's trimester system means we have another month to go). This means the start of the annual surge of Very Serious op-eds about what education means, giving advice to graduates, etc. The New York Times gets things rolling with an op-ed from the people who brought us the Academically Adrift kerfuffle a few months back. As I wrote at the time, I am underwhelmed by their argument. In fact, I would let it go entirely, were it not for a new bit that kind of creeps me out. In this new op-ed, they put the blame for the dire situation on a sense of student entitlement, writing:

The situation reflects a larger cultural change in the relationship between students and colleges. The authority of educators has diminished, and students are increasingly thought of, by themselves and their colleges, as "clients" or "consumers." When 18-year-olds are emboldened to see themselves in this manner, many look for ways to attain an educational credential effortlessly and comfortably. And they are catered to accordingly. The customer is always right.

Federal legislation has facilitated this shift. The funds from Pell Grants and subsidized loans, by being assigned to students to spend on academic institutions they have chosen rather than being packaged as institutional grants for colleges to dispense, have empowered students -- for good but also for ill. And expanded privacy protections have created obstacles for colleges in providing information on student performance to parents, undercutting a traditional check on student lassitude.

(Emphasis added.)

While I certainly have moments when I rail against an excessive sense of entitlement on the part of students, the students in question are generally not eligible for Pell Grants, which are direct cash payments to students from the neediest families, and many of them probably don't qualify for subsidized Stafford loans, either, which require a demonstration of financial need, though the requirements aren't as strict as for the Pell Grants.

The students who show the strongest sense of entitlement come not from the lower middle class, but from the upper. They've got designer clothes, shiny new laptops, and nicer cars than most of the faculty. They're mostly paying full tuition, or at most getting financial aid in the form of private loans, not grants or loans from the federal government.

They are, in short, the children of the assumed audience of the New York Times editorial page. Which is probably why programs to benefit poor families are the things called out in the op-ed. After all, we wouldn't want to annoy the paying customers.

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Can't agree with you here. I teach at a satellite campus of a Catholic university in the South Bronx. Most of our students are Pell recipients. Many of them think nothing of flunking a class because they know they can get more money to take it over again. If Pell grants were administered through the university, as they used to be, I doubt if colleges would waste that money on failing students who are just skating through without putting much effort in.

BTW, I was a Pell recipient myself, back in the day when they were college administered, and could not have gotten the great education I did without it. But I lived in mortal terror of flunking and losing that grant.

I can't speak for other institutions, but I seriously doubt that Pell Grants are driving the trend toward a sense of entitlement where I am. Nationally, something like 27% of students get Pell Grants, and the figure for elite colleges is a bit over half that; the last local information I could find had the local percentage at just over 13%. That's not enough students to shift overall attitudes.

Anecdotally, my experience is what I said: the students with the biggest sense of entitlement that I see are fairly well off. It may be that Pell Grant students have become more entitled as part of a national trend, but I really doubt that they're the driver of anything, no matter how they're administered.

The last thing this country needs is empowered poor students. Everyone knows that's supposed to be reserved for the kids who can have daddy phone up the president and donate a football stadium. Geeze.

By becca McSnarky (not verified) on 15 May 2011 #permalink

My opinion here is totally unsupportable because you would need 40 years of longitudinal data on attitudes from a survey designed knowing in advance the problems we are seeing today.

That said, the students who seem least entitled at my CC are the ones working their way through college. They expect to learn something of value, and work for it. However, they are also usually older students who have worked for a living.

I don't see Pell grants as the reason, or we would be overwhelmed with entitled students at this CC. If I was to oversimplify based on anecdotes, I might suggest that some act as if they are more entitled to the grant than a grade. The whiny ones are more likely to be from a suburban HS where they were merely given grades and blame the SAT for having to go to a CC.

That is, I would propose that the reason they feel entitled when they get to college is that they expect college to be just like high school, where the teachers were forced to pass just about everyone.

PS -
The days when you could keep getting grants while failing your classes have ended.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 15 May 2011 #permalink

That is, I would propose that the reason they feel entitled when they get to college is that they expect college to be just like high school, where the teachers were forced to pass just about everyone.

Ding! Ding! Ding! I think we have a winner. Not good longitudinal data, but the students taking lower-level math here are definitely worse in the fall than they are in the winter. They are outraged - outraged - that they can be kicked out of class for bad behaviour by the prof without a second thought, and that, yes, getting only 500 of the 1,000 possible points will result in an F, not a C- accompanied by much finger-wagging and a lecture about "having to learn to take your studies seriously".[1] I'd say that it's just that the kids don't think math is all that important as opposed to some other subject, but I have friends in the English department who report much the same phenomena, and that the kids there don't seem to think that good reading and writing skills are all that important to their imagined post-graduation careers.

[1]Unlike high school, professors can actually make a firm "no" stick, I've found. The key is documentation, documentation, documentation. Do that and the administration has your back. Don't have it, and they'll throw you to the wolves . . . just like they would in the case of high school teachers.

By ScentOfViolets (not verified) on 16 May 2011 #permalink

I partially agree with ScentOfViolets and CCPhysicist. I teach at a private college and our institution deals out some of the financial aid package. We try to accept the top 1/3 of the students that apply. When they get to our campus, they believe that they were in the top of the class in high school and that means they will be in the top of the class here. However, everyone here was in the top of the class and when a rigorous class becomes difficult, the students sometime act out. I have a colleague who had a student in class shout out "that's too hard you can't expect us to do that." I would asked the student to leave the class and then taken him out of the course. My colleague did not. I think that has given the rest of the class some power, but I will find out.

I also think that we need to take a longer look in the mirror though. Colleges are being sold more and more as a consumer outlet. "Come to College, get a degree, get a job." In many ways we have forgotten that we are not in that business, especially as physics teachers. Our business should be now and always skill and confidence building. I cannot right now imagine the types of jobs that my students will be engaging in in ten years. I have some ideas, but unlike thirty years ago, I don't know if I am even in the right ballpark. I do know that the reductionist problem solving skills, lab skills, and scientific communication skills will never go out of style. I spend many advising hours reminding students that I am not trying to get them a job, I am trying to help them get a life.

Finally, I first and foremost agree with Chad, that the students acting most entitled are always the ones paying full tuition. These students are also the ones in my years of teaching that always want special attention and when you treat them the same way as the rest of the class, you are being unfair. I have had a student tell me to my face, "My parents paid my tuition for this course, so I should get an A." That was at a state school five years ago.
Until we break the get a degree-get a job model of college,we are going to be living with this.

The feeling of entitlement and over-confidence by students may be encouraged by the college's acceptance letters; with the economy worse, many schools need to attract paying students, and state universities need to attract out-of-state students to pay the higher out-of-state tuition, typically 20k$ -22k$ more. To make sure admitted student will attend, they send out acceptance letters telling the student that 'based on your outstanding academic achievement, we offer you a scholarship of [~ 2k$/year] if you sign up [right away].' (My son received such letters from all out-of-state schools he applied for, and many invitations to apply, claiming his 'outstanding scholarship,' whereas I concluded it is just the combination of a wealthy zip code and good high school prompting these letters, not his good grades.]

Arum and Roska (in the NYT article) must have studied the most expensive colleges, whose product is not so much education, but access and privilege. After all, the second Bush could graduate even from Yale and his grades made little difference.--
And if you are at such a famous school, your career may be more influenced by the connections with the other children of rich people than by anything you learn in class.--
And it is the administrations of the 'exclusive' colleges, which drive the trend, in exchange for the enormous tuition fees needed to demonstrate exclusivity, they have to deal with the spoiled children of the rich.
The economics of higher education has recently been discussed again at, e.g.…
and in November 2011 when I commented:…

To "M" @7:

A friend who went to a highly selective school (I think it was one who went to Cal Tech, but it might have been Harvey Mudd) said their orientation included a segment where it was impressed on them that they were in a new situation, where being class valedictorian was merely average.

On the first day of class, you might try asking for a show of hands from the students who were in the top 10% of their high school graduating class. From what you say, that will be everyone. Then you look around and observe "from now on, half of you are below average". But then add something to build confidence in what this means, because your goal is to make that new average better than the average at any other college made up of similarly elite students.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 16 May 2011 #permalink