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How college life has changed for this generation

As your teen heads off to college, here are some important changes to recognize for this generation.
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As a parent, you’ve probably started a sentence with “When I was in school…” While this is nothing to be ashamed about—in fact sharing real-life experiences can provide really important wisdom to your kids—the world looks different today than it did when you were in college. In reality, the entire approach to life and work and love for young adults has dramatically shifted. Here are some important changes to recognize as your teen heads off to college.

Delayed adulthood

Young people are delaying adulthood in all aspects of life: education, moving out, marriage, kids, and career.

According to the Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, many 18-to-29-year-olds feel as if they are in a stage of life that is "in-between." Forty-five percent responded to the question, "Do you feel that you have reached adulthood" with "in some ways yes, in some ways no." The Clark Poll also found that among 19-21-year –olds, 47% still live with parents, while only 7% live with a husband or wife. According to Pew research, in 1960, 72% of all adults ages 18 and older were married; today just 51% are. Similar trends occur for parenthood as well.

Delayed parenthood and marriage allow for this new life stage, that research professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University Jeffery Jensen Arnett coined, "emerging adulthood." But, there is a lot of negative talk when it comes to this time. Stereotypes about millennials are everywhere. They are lazy or selfish and just can't seem to get it together. Arnett argues that these negative stereotypes are not true. In his book, "Getting to 30", he says, "They're not lazy, they're mostly working at crummy jobs for low pay or combining work and school; they're not selfish, they're remarkably generous and tolerant." Arnett argues that this delayed adulthood is actually a good thing for young people.

Former freshman dean at Stanford and author Julie Lythcott-Haims cautions against thinking of young adults as children just because they aren't getting married or having kids yet. She stresses young adults need to be independent, learn resilience from setbacks, and that parents need to step back and allow that to happen. Parents, of course, have concerns that their child will not find a good job or a happy relationship or settle down.

What does this mean for my young adult?

This time is new and different for both you and your kid. These formative years give young adults a chance to have experiences that they could not have earlier in life and will not be able to later in life when they have more responsibilities. In some ways, your young adult has an opportunity to learn how to make good choices in love and work and build resilience. This doesn't have to mean your young adult is lazy or putting off adulthood. In fact, Parent Toolkit youth advisor Emma, who graduates high school in 2017, says she wants to dispel the myth that young people are lazy. "If we're seeming lazy, it's because we're generally exhausted and our lives demand a lot of us," Emma says. "That's not respected as much as it should be." Another student advisor, Shreyas, a high school junior, agrees. "Call me optimistic or hopeful, but because we're connected to the world around us, it puts us in a position to do things that we wouldn't have been able to do 5 or 10 years ago," Shreyas says.

Education consultant Jennifer Miller says this is a big exploration and identity-forming time for young adults because they are away from their family for the first time. As a parent, try to understand that this time of life is not the same as when you were this age. You and your "emerging adult" can see this new life stage as an opportunity to grow their responsible decision-making skills and explore what type of life they ultimately hope to lead.

However, this does not mean your young adult can or should forgo responsibility. Lythcott-Haims says that there is a gap between what "they're supposed to know and what they do" for some young adults. She emphasizes that problems arise when young adults delay adult responsibilities like problem solving and decision-making. Just because your young adult is delaying having kids or getting married does not mean they have a free pass on professional and personal accountability.

College admission and completion

More young adults than ever before are attending college.

In October 2015, nearly 70% of American high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 1970 and 2009, undergraduate enrollment in the United States more than doubled, but the completion rate has been virtually unchanged, according to a report by Complete College America. Only 38% of first-time, full-time students who entered college in fall of 2008 seeking a bachelor’s degree finished in four years, while 60% completed the degree in six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

What does this mean for my young adult?

Recognize their accomplishments for getting into school and acknowledge the rigor of school today. The shift from high school academics to college academics is challenging for even the most prepared students. Focus on effort more than grades, especially in the first year of college. Help them identify campus resources before or at orientation, then encourage them to get support through counselors, academic advisors, writing centers, and other campus resources, but do not step in. It is their responsibility to take control of their academic success throughout college.

Going digital

For better or for worse, technology has entered the classroom, and the world.

At a college level, many students have their own laptops and are required to complete assignments—and sometimes even tests—online. Class registration and final course grades are all accessed online. Most of the college search, applications, and admissions process is now online, too. Most students use laptops during classes and lectures. A 2008 ScienceDirect study showed that students reported using their computer for things other than note taking for an average of 17 minutes during a 75-minute class.

What does this mean for my young adult?

First of all, your student will need access to a computer in college. If it is not financially possible to own a computer, most school libraries will have computers for your student to use or laptops to check-out. However, this does not mean that using the laptop during class is the best idea for your student. Many experts and professionals advise handwritten notes are best for comprehension.

Beyond just coursework, going digital means challenges for your young adult’s brain. Neurologist Judy Willis says the neural networks (how different parts of your brain communicate) are still gradually building through your young adult’s 20s. Now with the amount of information available with globalization and the internet, she says our students all have an information overload. “They’re not stupid, they’re not lazy,” Willis says. “But their brain development has hit the wall before the supply has met the demand.” She says parents have to recognize this and that flexibility, innovation and the ability to adapt reflect the Internet age.

Technology also offers opportunities for you as a parent. You are reading this right now because of the internet! And many schools provide resources online, a lot specifically designed for parents, where you can stay up-to-date on campus life, activities, and events.

Student debt and getting a job

For many students, it is a harsh and challenging reality.

College costs have gone up five times faster than family income since 1981, according to the College Board. A whopping 68 percent of students who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2015 had student loan debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. The average debt per person was $30,100. If you are helping your student pay for college, or paying for it entirely, this may not be as big of a factor. But for many students, it is a harsh and challenging reality.

What does this mean for my young adult?

Starting in high school, practice money management skills with your teen. If they have a job or allowance, guide your teen to divide savings for college and savings for spending money. This can help prepare them to manage college loans if they ultimately have to take them out. Before college, your student needs to apply for financial aid and then continue applying for it each year of their education. This guide will help you in filling out the Financial Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Students should also look for any other scholarships and financial aid they can get before taking out student loans.

When in college, help guide your teen to resources related to money management on campus. Do they know how to get to the Bursar’s Office? Do they know their student loan officer? Is their savings account going to be transferred to a bank closer to their college or will they keep their old bank? Education consultant Jennifer Miller says it can be helpful to simply raise these questions for consideration, offer a receptive ear, and point to resources.

This also means that life after college is very challenging for many young adults. Dealing with debt and finding a job that allows them to pay loans back while also supporting living expenses is a delicate balance. In his book, "There Is Life After College," Jeffery J. Selingo says, “The amount of student loan debt you have at graduation has a direct impact on the choice you’ll make in the years immediately after college.” This time may also mean your young adult will move back in with you after graduation. According to Pew research, as of May 2016, for the first time in the modern era, there are more 18-34 year olds living with their parents than living anywhere else. Parents have a range of thoughts on this, but above all, it is important for you to acknowledge some of the factors that may be contributing to your young adult’s seemingly stunted launch.

Close relationship to parents

The parent/child relationship looks a lot different, perhaps, than when you were your kid’s age.

According to the Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, more than half (55 percent) of 18-29-year-olds say they have contact with their parents via texting, email, phone, or in person every day or almost every day, and an additional 24% keep in contact at least a few times per week. However, some say their parents are a bit too close; 30% say that their parents are more involved in their lives than they really want them to be.

Fifty-one percent of parents in the State of Parenting poll said they spend more time with their children than their parents did with them.

What does this mean for my relationship with my young adult?

This can mean great things for your relationship with your young adults. The Clark poll found that more than three-fourths of 18-29-year-olds say that they get along a lot better with their parents now than they did in their mid-teens. This time can be a great time of support, friendship and discovery. However, it also means your relationship with your child is changing and it’s time to step back a little bit. This might be a time to take on a more supportive role in your child’s life rather than being involved in all of their decisions; a coach or mentor rather than a teller or fixer. Try setting a goal for yourself to help facilitate independence in your young adult. For example, Miller suggests asking yourself: “If an adult friend or close adult relative asked me for this kind of support, would it be appropriate or should they be doing it on their own?” This can help you reframe your perspective just a little bit and allow your relationship with your young adult to adapt and grow. Think of it as a wonderful opportunity for your relationship to take a new, beautiful form.

So, the next time you’re about to say “when I was in college…,” take a moment to pause and think about how this time in your young adult’s life may be completely different than when you were their age. This does not mean you cannot impart important advice, but it does mean that you may need to alter your expectations just a little bit. After all, it is their life, not yours. As Lythcott-Haims said in her 2015 TED Talk, “my job is not to make them become what I would have them become, but to support them becoming their glorious selves.”

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Sharon Sevier, Director of Advocacy, Missouri School Counselor Association; Judy Willis, Neurologist, Teacher, Author, International Lecturer, University of California, Santa Barbara; and Julie Lythcott-Haims, Author and Former Dean of Freshmen, Stanford University.