Student Entitlement: Six Ways to Respond

Student entitlement can be defined academically: “a self-centered disposition characterized by a general disregard for traditional faculty relationship boundaries and authority” (p. 198), or it can be described more functionally: “a sense that they [students] deserve what they want because they want it and want it now.” (p. 197)

Students who arrive in college with this sense of entitlement are not a majority and any consideration of how to respond to these students needs to be measured against how those responses will affect the learning environment for other students. The authors of a well-referenced article on student entitlement estimate that less than 10 percent of students fall into this category, but they point out that these students tend to require “a far greater proportion” of a faculty member’s time and energy.

The article includes a useful discussion of the bases for this sense of entitlement. The authors see it as resulting from cultural norms and expectations, specifically the consumer mentality that characterizes how students orient to college. It’s no longer about intellectual experiences; a college degree is now seen as a “ticket” to a better job. They also see grade inflation as contributing to students’ senses of entitlement. Show up and do the work even at a minimal level and you can expect to get a B. And finally they discuss generational differences and document an increase in levels of narcissism among college students today.

The authors suggest six strategies for responding to students with a sense of entitlement. Each is briefly highlighted here, with many more details appearing in the article.

  1. Make expectations explicit. The best place to begin doing this is on the syllabus. The authors recommend using grading rubrics that break assignments into parts and then designate a value for each component. Rubrics make expectations clear but they also help instructors explain grading decisions to students. They can be used to structure those conversations.
  2. Give students something to lose by negotiating. Entitled students often ask for grade changes or to have their work re-evaluated. There is also some evidence that when students argue for more points with professors, they typically get some. What the authors recommend is that faculty agree to re-evaluate work but that reassessment may result in the grade being raised or the grade being lowered (or it may stay the same). Entitled students ask for re-evaluations of their work because they have nothing to lose. This strategy introduces the possibility that there might be something lost and this gives students pause before making the request.
  3. Provide examples of “excellent” work. Many college students, especially beginning ones, do not have an accurate sense of the quality of their work. It may well be that they worked harder on this paper than on any other they’ve ever written, but it still may be well below college standards. Examples can be used to show students the differences between what they have done and what happens in an A paper. If these “excellent” examples are provided after students have done the assignment, this prevents students from attempting to copy the format without developing their own frameworks.
  4. Ask students to make the case first in writing. If students believe their works merits more points than have been awarded, don’t have a discussion with them about that until they have explained why in writing. This helps to defuse the emotion that often accompanies these exchanges, and it enables both the student and faculty member to prepare for the conversation.
  5. Resocialize students and faculty. “Explain your philosophy of teaching and learning and your focus on student responsibility. … Socialize students into assuming responsibility for their own efforts and their own learning so that they are less likely to blame you for any shortcomings.” (p. 202) That’s resocializing students—for faculty, the authors recommend attempting to understand today’s college students better. That doesn’t mean accepting behavior that compromises the educational enterprise, but it does mean coming to grips with who these students are.
  6. Institutional responses. The authors believe that institutional climate plays a role in determining how students behave and that certain climates diminish the amount of entitlement students may feel. They use rigorous first-year seminars as an example of how some institutions establish intellectual expectations for students.

The authors conclude by reiterating that this sense of entitlement is not characteristic of all college students. When faculty consider strategies that respond to entitlement, they must do so with an eye toward the learning needs of those students who come to college expecting their courses to be work and their thinking to be challenged.

Reference: Lippmann, S., Bulanda, R. E., and Wagenaar, T. C. (2009). Student entitlement: Issues and strategies for confronting entitlement in the classroom and beyond. College Teaching, 57 (4), 197–203.

Excerpted from “Entitled: Ways to Respond to Students Who Think They Are.” The Teaching Professor, 24.7 (2010): 8.