THE EXISTENTIAL STUDENT: UNDERSTANDING TODAY'S HIGHER EDUCATION STUDENTS

S. MacMillan

Mount Saint Vincent University (CANADA)
Today’s higher education attracts a wide variety of students who are diverse in many ways – culture, age, gender, socio-economic background, education, and life experiences (AUCC Trends in Higher Education, 2011; Gudrais, 2011). Additionally, they arrive at university with varying degrees of preparation, support, and commitment to higher education (ACT, 2008; Crosling, Heagney & Thomas, 2009; Lotkowski, Robbins & Noeth, 2004; Twenge, 2009). For many students, the transition from high school to university is a difficult one resulting in confusion, anxiety and stress (Conley, 2007; Kantanis, 2000; Krause, 2005; Kuh, 2009; Parker, Summerfeldt, Hogan & Majeski, 2004; Pritchard & Wilson, 2003). All of these factors mean that universities are struggling with myriad issues affecting their organizational efficacy: retention, relevance and higher mental health needs in a system designed in a bygone era. “Students are flocking to college because the world is more complex, turbulent, and more reliant on knowledge than ever before. But educational practices invented when higher education served only the few are increasingly disconnected from the needs of contemporary students (Greater Expectations, 2002: viii).” One way to increase our understanding of today’s students and the challenges they are facing is through Existential philosophy. Existentialism “attempts to understand how events in life fit into a larger context…involves the process of creating and discovering meaning, which is facilitated by a sense of coherence (order, reason for existence) and a sense of purpose (mission in life, direction)” (Reker & Chamberlain, 2000: 1). Existential concepts have been interpreted and used in varying ways, however four specific themes seem to be especially helpful in understanding today’s students, and paint a picture of the “existential student” - facticity, situatedness, choice, and alienation. These concepts show the problems that occur when students are, respectively, at very different starting points from one another, under great pressure to fit in to an ever changing society, worried about making the wrong education and career choices, and struggling with feelings of alienation. These are major challenges but they are ones that that can be addressed by universities through various targeted strategies.