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How Should We Respond to Student Entitlement?

I discovered some good literature on the student entitlement topic while preparing for the Magna Online Seminar program I’m presenting later today. Among the content areas addressed in the literature are: what entitlement is, what attitudes and beliefs are indicative of it, what’s causing it, whether it’s a recent phenomenon, how it can be measured, and what those measurements reveal. But something crucial is missing: how should faculty respond. Some sources offer hints, but I did not find any good, substantive advice. This post then is an attempt to start the conversation and to invite your insights and suggestions for dealing with these troublesome attitudes and beliefs.

Maybe the advice is missing because confronting entitled perspectives is challenging. If a student wants to take the exam at a later date so he can attend Grandma’s 90th birthday celebration, or if the objection to phone usage during class is answered with, “I paid for this course—what I do in it is my business”—the faculty member can say no or can cause the student to incur some consequences. Although those actions may take care of the immediate issue, they probably won’t change the student’s attitude. Rather, the student is more likely to conclude that the faculty member is difficult, or more jocularly, a jerk.

What teachers want most to avoid is the rude, aggressive display of entitled attitudes—in class, online, or in face-to-face conversations. Those expressions often feel like direct challenges to teacher authority and are difficult to answer without defensiveness and power moves. That prescribes a response that comes before the fact. Teachers should clarify their expectations at the beginning of the course and in the syllabus, and provide reminders as needed. “Grades are not curved in this class.” “Students with borderline grades are not bumped up.” “Exams are taken the days they are scheduled.” “Late homework gets feedback but no credit.” The preventative approach is most effective when teachers consistently adhere to stated expectations. On occasion there may be the need for an exception, but that happens rarely and is a matter that should be discussed privately with the student.

A second preventative approach involves having a conversation about entitlement before it’s expressed. Do students know what it is? Are the attitudes ones they hold? On Faculty Focus Premium you’ll find a series of scenarios designed to develop an awareness among students as to what entitlement is and strategies for facilitating discussion on the topic. However, it is at this point that the conversation can become challenging. In response to Greenberger, et. al.’s survey, 66.2% of the students endorsed this statement: “If I have explained to my professor that I’m trying hard, I think he/she should give me some consideration with respect to my grade.” If a majority or even a significant number of students in the class support an entitled attitude, the professor may be the only one verbalizing the position against it. When standing alone, it’s tempting to assert the authority that comes with the position and end the conversation with a declarative statement. “No! Grades measure what you know and are able to do. End of story.”

There needs to be a discussion on why attitudes of entitlement are harmful, starting with how they hurt the individual who holds them. If students get more points than they’ve earned, now those students have grades that indicate a level of knowledge not possessed. Moreover, giving students grades they haven’t earned compromises teachers’ integrity. They aren’t being honest or fair. When students get accommodations they don’t deserve, that tarnishes the reputation of their degree program and devalues what education aims to provide. And finally there are the potential professional costs that come when students leave college believing they are entitled.

And there’s something else this conversation could profitably include. What would we say if a student asked us what a college education does entitle them to? The opportunity to learn? But is that all? The opportunity to learn in a safe environment, one that respects a diversity of views and perspectives? The chance to learn from experts, who know the content and understand how to teach it? This is the part of the discussion of entitlement that teachers should be having with each other.

Is persuading students a reasonable goal for conversations about entitlement? Probably not for one conversation, but if the message is consistently delivered by multiple teachers and across the institution, then we’ll start seeing progress.

Reference: Greenberger, E., Lessard, J., Chen, C., and Farruggia, S. P. (2008). Self-entitled college students: Contributions of personality, parenting and motivational factor. Journal of Youth Adolescence, 37, 1193-1204.

For more on student entitlement, read Student Entitlement: Key Questions and Short Answers.