X Aspiration

October 23, 2005 | By Joshua Glenn

In their 1991 book “Generations,” William Strauss and Neil Howe characterized the so-called Generation X (Americans born in 1961 and after) as a profoundly skeptical cohort, “proud of their ability to poke through the hype” and difficult to market to. Last week, in an open letter to college administrators published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the pop demographers warned that in coming years the infamous skepticism of Xers could adversely affect not only the floggers of goods and services but colleges. Many schools, they wrote, may “see their admissions pools shrink, their acceptance yields decline, and their dropout rates rise-perhaps sharply.”

Why? Strauss and Howe predict that a decade from now, when Xers are the overwhelming majority of campus parents, they are likely to ask unsentimental questions about, for example, measurable results, return on investment, and especially tuition. Strauss and Howe suggest that unlike the Boomer parents of today’s undergrads, who’ve yearned to relive-through their children-their own college experiences (recalled as halcyon days despite, or because of, the upheavals of the late 1960s and early ‘70s), Xers are far more “likely to recall college in hindsight as a waste of time and money.”

This attitude is partly philosophical: According to UCLA’s annual survey of college freshmen, those who entered college in the 1980s and ‘90s were only half as likely as those who matriculated in the ‘60s and ‘70s to agree that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was an important goal of college. Instead, most saw the goal as “being very well off financially.” But Xers taking their kids on campus tours in 2015 will also be a hard sell, claim Strauss and Howe, because they know that today’s debt-ridden college grads “no longer automatically have an edge over their peers who spent those same four years building a resume, gaining experience, establishing connections, and earning and saving money.”

What of the received wisdom that the high cost of traditional higher education is worth it? According to Strauss and Howe, in recent years the knee-jerk reaction of Xers has been on the money: Don’t believe the hype.