Are today’s students revolting?

Here is a letter from a US professor who is retiring after 40 years of teaching. He complains of the sense of entitlement among today’s students and says he “grew increasingly weary of all the whining, crying, excuse-making, and general lack of attention to responsibility that appear to characterize most of today’s college and university students.”

Is this typical? Are current students more needy than in the past? I’m not aware of any solid research on this matter so my view is necessarily anecdotal. Generalisations about generations (X, Y, the millenials) are dubious because people are born in a year not a fixed 20 year cohort. Grouping them for marketing convenience is essentially arbitrary, though it’s quite plausible that people’s attitudes will depend in some degree on the socio-economic conditions of their childhood and formative years, and of course whether they were affected by major events such as wars. Some people believe that most of history can be explained and even predicted on this basis. While I’m happy to believe that the children brought up in the wake of the Great Depression will likely have different attitudes to risk from those brought up in the 1960s, I’m doubtful that you can build a whole forecasting framework on this. But Bob Prechter, of the Elliot Wave theory, gave a talk at Cambridge Judge Business School a couple of years ago to try to persuade us that you can.

At a shorter time horizon, you might expect that students’ level of confidence (expressed as their tendency to demand things) is correlated with the state of the labour market. During the late 1990s there was what McKinsey called the “war for talent” arising from the sudden fashionability of dotcom startups that promised effortless cool and money, and which attracted thousands out of consulting and banking. But not for long. The collapse of the technology, media and telecoms (TMT) bubble in 2000-2001 killed off most of those hopes and the much tougher job market in the early 2000s saw the war for talent quietly dropped. Power shifted back to the employers and wise students learned to be a bit more humble.

But only briefly, because the biggest bubble of all, the global credit wave of the mid-2000s saw a boom in recruitment of both undergraduate and MBA students into finance and a booming global economy. It would be entirely unsurprising if that made students feel they were entitled not only to high pay but a sense of personal worth, meaningful work, “authentic” leadership (ugh) and all those fine things. But the continuing shrinkage of the western financial system and the sluggish global economic recovery ought to be trimming their sails once again.

I have the clear impression from colleagues in Cambridge and at other business schools that there has been a strong sense of entitlement in the students of the last five years or so. There is still a sense among many students that they are special enough not to be affected by the sharp drop in employment in the western financial system. But the reality sinks in soon enough. It is more or less impossible to get a front office job in finance in London or New York now if you have no previous finance experience. There are a tiny number of exceptions – I have worked with a couple of them myself – but they are remarkably motivated and impressive people, at least three standard deviations from the mean. So their success is utterly unrepresentative of what the majority of MBAs can expect.

The expectations of a student paying the high fees of an MBA or MFin course are inevitably going to be high. So some of that “entitlement” is the attitude of a consumer who has purchased an expensive product and wants it to be perfect. But students aren’t really consumers, they are the product. They pay for the chance to work, learn and experience a range of educational and personal experiences. The short term outcome – the job – is not part of the service, it is up to them. And in the brutally difficult job market right now, even the best MBAs struggle to enter front office finance jobs.

Undergraduates at Cambridge are know for being very uncomplaining, even in the face of mediocre lectures, which are still far too common. That is partly because the real learning is done when students write essays and discuss them in supervisions (what Oxford calls tutorials). But it’s also that until recently it didn’t cost the students much. From this year they cost is £9,000 a year, still inexpensive by Ivy League standards, below the actual cost to the University, and fully funded by a government provided income-contingent loan repayment at zero real interest rates. But students might start to behave a bit more like their graduate colleagues on the premium fee programmes when they think about the debts they’re starting to pile up (still pretty small relative to their future earnings, but much higher than previous generations of students had to cope with).

As for the Master of Finance, it is impossible for me to prove this but my impression is that the Cambridge MFin students have been showing progressively less of that sense of entitlement over the four years of the course. That is probably partly because the seriousness of the finance industry’s problems is now obvious, which induces some humility. But I think it’s partly owing to changes we’ve made on the programme. I blogged about the question of student choice in February 2011. It seems that reducing student choice in respect of project companies, team members and so on has lowered the stress levels a bit. We have also expressed more clearly the rules governing the programme and reduced the areas for disagreement. There are always some students who see every rule as a starting point for negotiation. We have been more effective than before in shutting down this negotiation, which wastes the team’s time and gives the impression that everything else is up for grabs. I think that the reduced choice, greater clarity of rules and firmer implementation have led to a more harmonious experience for everyone. Certainly 2011-12 was the least eventful MFin year so far. But I will need to see what the next couple of classes are like to be sure.

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