Substance fades from student goals

The more things change the more they stay the same, or do they? Make no doubt; there are some things that have changed since the ’70s.
When I was a student at the University from 1975 to 1977, college was something of a spiritual experience. One of the most important ‘spiritual’ considerations was whether we were having a party on Friday night. If my fraternity wasn’t having one, who was? But if nobody was, we still had our ‘brotherhood’ in the basement with a Ping-Pong table, foosball table, jukebox and a pop machine filled with ‘old mil’ for just such occasions.
That was my world. I can reveal this now because my fraternity is long gone off campus and the drinking age back then was 18. During those three years, my social skills were honed to those of a professional. After all, we were a social fraternity.
Today, students have different goals, opinions and interests. With no military draft, the biggest news seems to be Monica and the president. Militant activism, like protesting the war in Vietnam during the ’60s, is a blurry dream. Students seem to be at peace with the way things are and go to school to achieve what they should be here for in the first place — a career.
Before returning to the University to finish my degree, my impression of modern students was that they were totally different from when I was here in the ’70s. I thought students were here only to chase the dollar, having forgotten the philosophy of life dribble. Their spirituality had been lost to the buck.
Since coming back to campus in 1992, I’ve done some serious soul-searching and have tried to figure out the last 20 years that have led me around the country and back. Maybe I’m back in school again to chase the buck too, and things really haven’t changed that much — just me.
The Economist reported last January that it isn’t just me. Students have changed. The results of a survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles, indicate that the modern student has very different values. Since 1966, the number of students who want to be “very well off financially” rose to 75 percent from 40 percent, while the number who want to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life” has dropped to a mere 41 percent from 80 percent. Over the past few months, I’ve shared these results and my thoughts with many fellow students.
A 48-year-old graduate student at St. Thomas told me, “I like the article, I believe it and it makes a lot of sense. Most students in the ’70s were looking for more freedom to make their own decisions.” But Moreasu also thought that today’s interest in money makes sense. “You have to have more money these days because of the cost of living, people want more,” she said, adding that students today are much more conservative and are here to get ahead in life.
When it came time to pick a freshman’s brain, I was surprised to hear what I did. She impressed me with her maturity and self-awareness when it came to the money issue. One 18-year-old considering medicine said, “I know people are here for money. Television, newspapers and society all tell you to go to school and get a good job, that you want to be rich.”
This opinion was shared by her friend, a freshman considering journalism. “Everyone wants the American dream,” she said. “There’s such a focus on money because nowadays everyone wants to get ahead.” She told me that she has to be serious about getting a well-paying job when she graduates because of her student loans. “For me, I’m making a big investment in this school and want to pay back my loans on time.”
This is pretty darn responsible talk. I wish I had been that mature when I was here the first time. Speaking with these two freshmen about the money issue and what students are looking for helped me understand something about myself as well. I have come looking for a degree for a lot of the same reasons — just 25 years later.
One faculty member, who has been teaching since 1958, agreed, stating, “It seems that today the most important thing that students want to get out of college is a job.” He added that students today are more interested in the “bottom line” and that often the homework he receives mentions “being well-off financially” as part of students’ life goals.
When it comes to developing a meaningful philosophy of life like what students looked for in the ’60s, this faculty member made a good point. “In the ’60s there was a heartfelt opposition to the Vietnam War and to injustice in general,” he said, adding that the Iraq situation today may have more opposition than one might think. Maybe things aren’t that different from the ’60s when it comes to a war.
It wasn’t easy to pin down the exact changes in campus culture that have occurred since the ’60s and ’70s. After many sleepless nights, however, some coherent ideas began to form in my mind.
Yes, students are more interested in making money than they were in the ’60s and ’70s. This, I believe, is from growing up in the Reagan and Bush era as the majority of people in the country were striving to get ahead with the new Republican agenda. Today’s students probably learned this from their parents, people who are about my age. The old idea that we get more conservative with age might well be true. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, but the apparent relative conservatism on campus seems to be learned behavior.
When it comes right down to it, people are people and students are still the same in many ways. They still like to party and get nuts. They go to Sally’s on a ladies night — of course we called it ‘The Improper Fraction’ in the ’70s. The fraternities still have parties, and driving down frat-row the scene is still the same, students hanging out having a few brews in the sun. In my classes, students still ask the same kinds of questions and respond to homework as we did.
Maybe some of the ideologies have shifted, but the ‘youth’ in us, I’m happy to say, seems to have remained the same.

Mark J. Wrolstad is finally a graduating senior in University College.