Are today’s college students apathetic, and do they lack work ethic?

Students in one of my classes work with partners on a discussion activity.

I received an email from a friend who is going to be an adjunct faculty member next semester. She has taught before and enjoyed it and is looking forward to adding teaching a college class with her full-time job.

She said that her soon-to-be colleagues have told her that “students are more apathetic than they used to be.”

So she asked me: “Have you seen a decline in the work ethic of your students?”

I’ve had several reactions as I’ve thought about her email and what I see as two different but potentially related student issues – work ethic and apathy.

I’d say that almost all of my students are hard working.

When I talk with students about their schedules, I typically find out that the students are double-majoring or working on a certificate program in addition to a major. Most are involved in at least two or three activities (i.e., service projects, a professional organization, and a few in sororities or fraternities). Some are helping pay their own expenses by working at a restaurant or as a resident assistant.

That’s not to say that a few students aren’t taking their classes seriously, as the saying goes. Most of my students have a good work ethics, but most of them aren’t putting all their time and energy into their classes.

The comment that “students are more apathetic than they used to be” could be a reflection of the current economy. For this year’s seniors, all four years they’ve been in college the US has been in the midst of a significant recession – and without a rebound in sight.

Whereas four or five years ago, seniors often would want to talk about their post-graduation internship and job offers, many of today’s seniors don’t have a job offer at graduation and are moving home to live with family while working part-time at restaurants or stores and applying for jobs in their field.

It’s hard for students to be as excited about their academic endeavors if they don’t see their efforts connecting with job possibilities when they graduate. I teach in the communications field where more lay-offs are being announced than jobs. Recently, Media General announced that it was laying off 165 employees, with The Tampa Tribune laying off 16 percent of its staff.

The students in my classes are double-majoring, doing several internships, taking leadership roles in organizations, and working part-time because they are trying to cover as many bases as possible as they prepare for a very dismal job market.

They want to have a high GPA so they can apply to graduate school, which is an option if they don’t have a job when they graduate. They want to have a portfolio and professional experience to use in applying for jobs. They need contacts through internships and leadership activities to provide those ever-important networking connections.

Perhaps the apathy my friend’s college colleagues were referring to was students’ lack of political engagement – apathy about changing things. But from my experience with today’s college students, most are involved in trying to help make changes. They are involved in Rock the Vote or are volunteering to help kids in at-risk schools or are involved in a fundraiser for a worthy cause.

So, I’m telling my friend that today’s college students are hard working and are interested in being involved in making positive change. But they may be discouraged about the value of their efforts or may be feeling overwhelmed about trying to cover all those bases.

I’d be interested in your opinion about what faculty can do to try and help college students both be prepared for the tough job market and persevere.


  1. I would tell them to ask their professors for help; where to look for jobs, if they know of any job openings, or even to critique their performance during an interview. But most of all, be honest. That’s the best thing you can do for your students.


    1. Thanks for your comment. You are so right. Too many students don’t take advantage of the one-on-one help that professors can offer. Faculty have office hours for just those kinds of conversations. I’d encourage students to schedule an appointment to make sure there’s time for planning-for-my-future conversation. I also agree that faculty need to be honest — both about the job market and about the student’s potential.


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