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The current generation of North American consumers may be more connected and tech savvy than any that has come before, but many aspects of college life remain fundamentally unchanged.
Students are still seeking ways of dealing with the strum und drang (storm and stress) of a time of transition and transformation, but they are doing it in new (or modified ways) – caring for pets, widening their travel horizons to take in city breaks, package tours and activity holidays, downing craft beers or venting via social networks.
The number of students in higher education in North America declined by 2.4% between 2010 and 2015, to 21.5 million. Just over three-quarters of these (16.2 million) were university students during the latter year.
Source: Euromonitor International from national statistics/UNESCO
The first iPhone was launched in 2007, so the current generation of college students has grown up in a smartphone world. A Gallup survey conducted during mid-2015 found that 58% of women aged between 18 years and 29 years ‘couldn’t image my life without a smartphone’. Among men in the same cohort, the figure was 45%.
In July 2015, iPhone user Jordan Winn told newspaper USA Today that not having his phone made him feel disconnected. “When I’ve got my phone, I can access any information in the world, whether it’s my schedule for work or school… or something stupid on Urban Dictionary”, he said. 20-year-old Lindsey Miller claimed: “It seems that people would rather check Facebook than talk with people face to face”. However, she added: “There are many apps that are used for education, health and art. For example, I use the Kindle app on my phone so I don’t have to carry a book around”.
Pet ownership is growing in popularity among university students. In October 2015, the New York Times reported that “Anxiety, followed closely by depression, has become a growing diagnosis among college students in the last few years”, adding that pet ownership had become a way for students to deal with this.
Rebecca Sampson, a student in Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, who owns two cats, told Ballstatedaily.com, “[It is] …a good stress relief to play with them or snuggle them for a while”. However, pet ownership can be costly. Dog-owning Ball State University student Jake Crosley added: “[It] can be expensive. We’ve had some big vet bills and then we had to pay more on our rent to have her”.
Spring break is one of the annual rituals of student life in North America. Traditionally, this has involved hedonistic trips to warmer climes, such as Florida, Mexico or the Caribbean. However, spring break travel is steadily becoming more diverse, according to travel industry sources. Website Travelweekly.com reports that a growing number of spring breakers are eschewing traditional fun-and-sun resorts to go skiing in Colorado or to visit such cities as New York, London or Barcelona.
“A lot of students are looking to spend their spring break having experiences that they can add to their resume and talk about, not just relaxing on a beach”, commented Danielle Dougan, public relations manager for StudentUniverse.
Beer has long played a central role in college life in North America, and demand for craft beer is on the rise among students. California State Polytechnic University in Pomona even boasts its own on-campus brewery. However, craft beer is relatively expensive, and affordability can be an issue.
According to one commenter on the review website Yelp, the Pint, which is located in Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, is “a little on the pricey side, most beers being at least US$5”. However, he added: “If you enjoy craft beer or want to learn more about it and try a few (4oz – 118ml – samples cost US$2), then The Pint is for you”.
Blogger Lindsey Kirchoff argues: “College kids… are notorious cheapskates. But… we are more than willing to splurge on fun or luxury purchases… good craft beer is becoming such a luxury purchase – equivalent to a nice glass of wine”.
Launched in 2013, Yik Yak is a smartphone app that allows users to make anonymous posts that can only be viewed by other users within a radius of 1.5 miles (2.4km). These characteristics have made it particularly appealing to college students, as they “tend to be geographically clustered and have some common interest to talk about”, website Vox observed.
However, it has also proven to be a haven for bullying, sexism and racism, leading some to call for it to be banned from campuses. Children’s advocacy group Common Sense Media opined: “Yik Yak’s just yucky. It’s a gossipy, lewd, crass online environment in which anything goes”. On the other hand, writing on website Slate.com, Amanda Hess defended Yik Yak as “an essential outlet for many college students who are adjusting to a new community and exploring their own identities”.
With every passing year, college students are increasingly becoming true ‘digital natives’ – by 2020, an 18-year-old freshman will have been just five years of age when the original iPhone launched. As a result, the internet is likely is likely to become increasingly ubiquitous, with apps woven ever-more deeply into the fabric of student life. But with heighted economic uncertainty also likely to be a long-term trend, they will also be facing a more uncertain and stressful world and will seek new ways of coping with this and decompressing.