Want to Feel Old? Here’s How This Year’s College Freshmen See the World

In a few weeks a new batch of college freshmen will step onto the quad, and their lives have been very different from yours

Graduation day sends a whole new batch of high school students to college, with a whole new perspective on the world. Image: ajagendorf25

This year’s college freshmen aren’t like you (unless you’re one of them). Richard Nixon, Kurt Cobain, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and John Wayne Gacy have been dead their entire lives. And for the entirety of those lives, they have lived in cyberspace. They don’t remember a time before electronics or the internet, or before suitcases had be carried, and not rolled.

These are some of the insights garnered by the Beloit List, a reference compiling all the things that each year’s freshmen, most of them born in 1994 (yes, 1994) experience differently than you or I. It includes things that might make you shake your head:

  • Michael Jackson’s family, not the Kennedys, constitutes “American Royalty.”
  • They weren’t alive when “Pulp Fiction” came out.
  • Robert De Niro is thought of as Greg Focker’s long-suffering father-in-law, not as Vito Corleone or Jimmy Conway.
  • Since they’ve been born, the United States has measured progress by a 2 percent jump in unemployment and a 16 cent rise in the price of a first class postage stamp.
  • Exposed bra straps have always been a fashion statement, not a wardrobe malfunction to be corrected quietly by well-meaning friends.

But also things that reflect the advances society has made since your freshman year:

  • For most of their lives, maintaining relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world has been a woman’s job in the State Department.
  • Women have always piloted war planes and space shuttles.
  • White House security has never felt it necessary to wear rubber gloves when gay groups have visited.
  • Gene therapy has always been an available treatment.
  • Genomes of living things have always been sequenced.

The list isn’t just for fun either. The Washington Post writes:

The lists have begun attracting attention from government agencies, athletic organizations and other groups that want to know how the younger generation thinks. Nief and McBride will be sharing their insights with employees of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in October.

It’s also helpful for teachers to understand the set of references their students are working with. Many freshmen are unfamiliar with biblical allusions, which changes how professors teach Shakespeare or Milton.

Of course it’s impossible to generalize all college freshmen. Some of them do think of the Twilight Zone as a science fiction television show, rather than a zombie romp. The Washington Post again:

Some teens were insulted by the insinuation that they had no knowledge of events that happened before they were born, as if they had never studied history. So Nief and McBride have softened the tone, replacing “They don’t know about…” with “They never experienced…”

The Beloit College Mindset List started back in 1998. The authors have compiled a book about the differences between generations, in which they track ten generations’ world views. From students born in 1880 to what the world might be like for those born two years ago. And if you’re still reeling from the list, you’re not alone. Every year is surprising and strange, and hard for us to wrap our minds around, the authors say.

For those who cannot comprehend that it has been 18 years since this year’s entering college students were born, they should recognize that the next four years will go even faster, confirming the authors’ belief that “generation gaps have always needed glue.”


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