Notre Dame Students Today: What They're Like

Author: Ed Cohen

There was a time when a telephone with a bulbous red flashing light on it meant something. The Soviet premier was ringing the White House to inquire about a bomber squadron screaming over Siberia in the direction of Moscow. Or Commissioner Gordon needed Batman’s assistance with an arch villain wielding an amnesia ray.

It’s a little disorienting, therefore, to poke one’s head into the room of Zahm Hall freshman Charles Kennedy on a chilly spring evening.

He sits at a desk, working at a laptop computer. Music plays from the computer’s compact speakers while he puts the final touches on a PowerPoint presentation for an Air Force ROTC class, which he’s taking as a non-ROTC student.

Across the room a prominent red light blinks insistently on the face of his room telephone, not unlike an engine trouble indicator on a cockpit control panel. He ignores it.

“I’m not a big fan of the phone,” he says by way of non-explanation.

The lack of concern results from experience. All Notre Dame residence hall rooms come equipped with such a phone. The red light signals that a voice-mail message is waiting for one or more of the room’s residents, who share a single line. Like Kennedy, few students race to investigate it. They know the message is likely to be a mass voice-mail from the hall staff—a reminder about tonight’s hall council meeting, an invitation to Multicultural Week activities.

If someone important were trying to reach them—say a friend or a member of a group project for class—the fellow student would be unlikely to resort to means as indirect as a land line telephone call. They’d use their cell phone—the overwhelming majority of students carry them—and set off a buzz or bleep in the other person’s pocket or purse or backpack, reaching out to touch them where they are right now.

More likely still, if seated at a computer, students would simply double-click the screen name of the person they want to reach on their Instant Messenger buddy list and launch into a typed conversation right away.

“It’s, like, so much less effort,” says another freshman, Shannon Trevino of Howard Hall, of instant messaging versus old-fashion, look-up-the-number telephony._

So it goes among the impatient, 15 million-bits-per-second Connected Generation, now multitasking at a college or university near you.

Alumni often ask those of us who work at Notre Dame what undergraduates are like today. The answer is that in many respects they’re not much different from previous generations.

A case could be made that they’re better.

To overgeneralize—something this article is going to do throughout —the typical Notre Dame student of today is bright, industrious, articulate, respectful, generous, neat, fit, even buff, not to mention tech-savvy. “A terrific group” is the way English professor Thomas Werge describes them. He has plenty to compare them to, having taught at Notre Dame so long that some of his former students’ children are now enrolling in his classes.

Today’s Notre Dame students are the most able young men and women that communities all over the country, and some foreign countries, have to offer. By and large, they come from good, close families. They love their parents and are doing them proud in South Bend, thank you, filling their report cards with As and raising money and volunteering to help the less fortunate. The principal blot on the collective student body’s record is what’s become an annual mass bust of underage drinkers carrying fake IDs in a local bar. This year there were two busts.

Today’s students are more ethnically and racially diverse than those of the past—and they figure to become more so in the future, thanks to a 41 percent jump in applications from minorities this year. But the complexion change isn’t all that noticeable among undergraduates as more than four-fifths remain Caucasian (and Catholic).

Each year students found new groups and programs—a fly fishing club last year, the Queen of Notre Dame Contest this past April. But these future alumni—1 in 4 of whom is the child of an alumnus —also eagerly uphold the traditions they inherit. And sulk when any are discontinued, as was the case a few years ago when sleeping out to be first in line to buy football tickets was done away with because of safety concerns.

Tailgating before home football games and standing shoulder to shoulder from kickoff to helmet-salute continue to be thought of as compulsory, if exhausting, delights. To administrators’ dismay, a substantial majority continues to deem alcohol and weekend fun as inseparable.

The most obvious distinguishing characteristic of this generation? Alumni who predate coeducation would say it’s the presence of women, projected to constitute 48 percent of the incoming Class of 2007. For any other observer, it would be the extent to which technology has become embedded in these students’ lives, especially communications technology.You can’t turn your head on campus now, for instance, without seeing a student walking while talking on a cell phone.

Today’s students stand out from their predecessors in many other ways, but most of them aren’t so apparent.


By any measure, these are the most qualified students ever to attend Notre Dame. The 3,360 applicants accepted for next fall’s freshman class, out of a record pool of 12,094 applicants, carry an average SAT of 1382, a score that ranks in the 97th percentile nationally for college-bound students. Half of ND-admitted-students’ scores ranged from 1320 to 1460. Among those not admitted by Admissions: 373 high school valedictorians.

This is the sort of Tiffany jewelry counter selection a university enjoys when it’s ranked in the top 20 and blessed with loyal, successful alumni (mothers now, as well as fathers) who dream of seeing their children follow in their footsteps up the Main Building’s stairs. It also helps being able to provide financial aid so you can pick applicants without regard to their ability to pay, as has been the case since 1998, when the University began meeting full demonstrated need.

Considering how competitive getting into Notre Dame has become, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the ones making it through are go-getters of the highest order. They not only made As in high school, they were leaders outside the classroom. The classic example of this, and of Notre Dame’s continuing appeal to people who like sports, is that about three-fourths lettered in a varsity sport in high school and 38 percent captained a team.

These are young people who, by and large, know only one speed —constant. Their parents sent them to space camp, minivan-ed them to youth soccer, steered them into advanced placement courses (almost 25 percent of students admitted the past few years have been children of educators). It’s a group, says one Notre Dame officer, “that has been thinking about college admission since seventh grade.”

They are goal-setters, goal-reachers. And after attaining the grand goal—maybe it was their parents’ goal, too—of making it into a school like Notre Dame, some yield to fatigue and dial it back. But they are in the minority. Most current students continue to cram their lives with full course loads and wide range of extracurriculars, from the purely fun (Bookstore Basketball) to the benevolent (Habitat for Humanity) to the career positioning (Student International Business Council). There are now more than 200 recognized student groups. Plus about 40 percent of students hold jobs on campus.

Many are so busy they barely have time to eat. In 1994 Food Services began offering throw-it-in-a-bag Grab ‘n’ Go meals. Students pick up about 1,800 of these a day now. The South Dining Hall stays open till 9 Monday through Thursday to accommodate late-day meetings and sports practices.

One senses that many students today see college not as a timeout from reality but a time to knuckle down and make sure the future turns out as it should. An administrator who was an undergraduate in the 1970s says past generations of students began thinking seriously about a post-graduation plans at, say, November of senior year. Today’s are already strategizing about majors and minors, internships, whether to study abroad in Austria or Australia junior year, while still freshmen. Or as they’re now officially termed, “first-year students.”

This is not to say all students are scheming and sweating to ensure a lavish future lifestyle. They don’t all use the same yardstick to set life goals. Competition among seniors, for instance, appears to be no more spirited to land a position with a power brokerage on Wall Street than to be accepted into the Alliance for Catholic Education, which places new graduates in teaching positions in under-resourced Catholic schools for two years. They get a stipend and course work during summers that leads to a master’s degree in education.

Notre Dame students know they’ve made it this far by working diligently within the system. So it’s perhaps only natural that so many seem reluctant to buck it.

Faculty—perhaps because they were the opposite way in college —often complain that students are ready to accept whatever rule or requirement is handed down by authority figures. It surprises some administrators—and even amuses them, they might allow privately—how readily students comply with a rule requiring groups to preregister and obtain permission before protesting anything on campus.

Another common gripe among educators—an ancient one that isn’t limited to Notre Dame—is that students are more concerned with making grades (“Is this going to be on the test?”) than learning. “There’s a lot of focus on getting an A, acing your test, less on learning the material,” one student acknowledges.

Each year about one-third of Notre Dame seniors immediately embark on graduate study. So keeping grades up is important for many as they look ahead to a competitive applications process. But it sometimes seems to extend beyond logical bounds. One professor who has taught biology for more than three decades says he has students in classes for non-science majors—people who aren’t eyeing med school—who argue over half a point as if their futures depended on it. Others, finding themselves getting a C a few weeks into a semester, opt to drop the class rather than risk tarnishing their GPA.


The long-term proximity of nose and grindstone may be taking a toll. Although many on campus see students as generally cheerful, as do most of the students, other longtime campus observers detect a shift in demeanor.

“Students are a lot quieter than they used to be, more serious,” says a Holy Cross priest who has taught and lived among male students in the residence halls for more than 40 years. “I think they’re more concerned about life, not as buoyant.”

Walking from his office to the building where he teaches, the science professor says he sees hardly any students smiling. “They all look so grim. They don’t seem to be enjoying life, and, my God, at that age—18 years old.”

Some of the grimness probably reflects the pressure today’s students feel to be the best, and a coming to grips with reality. “Everyone here excelled at everything in high school,” says one student, “and here you can’t be the best at everything.”

One former hall rector, who has lived among Notre Dame women since the early 1970s, says she always suggested that applicants for resident assistant positions also apply for other campus leadership roles. In high school, most of them had won the positions they wanted. But there were too many qualified applicants for the available RA jobs. “It becomes the first time they’ve not made it,” she says. “They see it as a failure.”

Students know they can’t be perfect at everything, but many still try. That includes trying to fit the idealized body type of celebrities. For women it’s the thin Jennifer Aniston; for guys, it’s to be “ripped” like Brad Pitt. It’ not uncommon to hear a female student remark after pigging out on dinner that she has a long night ahead of her on the aerobics machines to burn off the indulgence.

It’s easy to see how such attitudes lead to eating disorders. Most victims are women, but Notre Dame men have received treatment in recent years as well.

That’s another difference in today’s students. If they think they have a problem, they seek professional help. The University now employs eight full-time, Ph.D.-holding counseling psychologists and one clinical psychologist, yet sometimes there’s a waiting list.

According to one student affairs administrator, more students than ever arrive at Notre Dame taking antidepressants and other pharmaceuticals to treat mental and emotional problems. He isn’t sure of the reason for the change—whether students today are more comfortable seeking help, or if today’s culture produces more stress and a feeling of being overwhelmed.


Life for today’s students isn’t all grade-chasing and fitness-questing. Walk through a dorm, especially a male one, any evening or weekend and you’ll find plenty of examples of sloth.

One of the paradoxes of the Notre Dame student body is how a group so experienced and dedicated to fitness nonetheless spends hours glued to computer and television screens. In women’s halls, roommates and friends get together for marathon sessions of watching DVDs of such classic “chick flicks” as My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Notting Hill or to take in a few episodes from a season’s worth of Friends.

Sports continue to dominate guys’ viewing habits. Multiple satellite dishes protrude from the south-facing walls of many men’s halls, with wires running to various rooms. Guys typically purchase or through illegal means obtain access to full-season sports programming. This year Zahm Hall won a $1,000 prize for collecting the most used coats for the annual Project Warmth campaign. Hall government put the money toward the purchase of a wide-screen, high-definition TV with surround sound for the basement lounge.

Another favorite diversion among guys is competitive video sports gaming. Participants spend hours assembling imaginary college football teams from real players’ statistics. Competition entails a series of head-to-head match-ups. It’s serious stuff.

Among both males and females, however, the primary diversion on weekends (which begin Thursday night) remains drinking. Although administrators have tried valiantly to change attitudes, the clear majority of students (other than African-American students) continues to view alcohol as a necessary ingredient in nightlife. And the goal among many is not merely to unwind after a hard week of goal-pursuit but to get wasted. The typical student is well-schooled in methods for achieving this state.

Earlier this year a poll posted at the student-run website asked students how often they personally had participated in drinking games while at Notre Dame. The options were: “never,” “just once,” “several times,” “every week,” or “more often.” By late April 225 had responded. The most popular choice was “several times” (45 percent). A combined 38 percent said they did it every week or more often.

Students and some faculty and administrators say that what goes on at Notre Dame is no different from at other universities. But it’s telling that the most vocal protests in memory followed the announcement a year ago of changes in campus alcohol policies. The change that drew the most scorn—and continues to be resented —banned in-hall dances.

It’s not clear whether the rule changes have sobered the drinking culture any. Many students say the dance ban only spoiled a cherished campus tradition and that just as much abusive drinking goes on as before, only at off-campus parties. Administrators says they see signs of less alcohol consumption and hope further research will verify this.

If it didn’t curb drinking, the demise of the in-hall dance probably has altered at least one aspect of campus culture: the undergraduate dating scene.

Students will laugh reading that term because many insist no such scene exists. A group of about 20 upperclassmen was asked earlier this year how many had gone out on a traditional date while enrolled at Notre Dame. Fewer than a third raised their hands.

At Notre Dame at least, dating has become more of a group thing, so much so that many female students (always referred to as “girls” by both male students and themselves) say they would find it unnerving for a guy to ask them to go alone with him to dinner and a movie. The typical pattern for dances is for a half-dozen guy friends to ask a like number of girls, often fixing up one another, and then go as a group. As one fifth-year senior female puts it, “You don’t go to a dance unless all your friends are going.”

On such excursions, even when one of the parties has a genuine romantic interest in the other (it happens), the evening typically ends not with an awkward good-night kiss at the door but a “see ya” and a wave, according to one student.

Hugs and hand-holding can be spotted here and there on campus, and you’ll see the occasional peck on the cheek. But rarely, if ever, will you find a couple kissing passionately in public. Such behavior is derisively labeled a PDA, for Public Display of Affection.

If not in public, then where do today’s students deem it acceptable to “make out.” Under the former dance system, a couple might sneak off to the host’s room, where, under the influence of the alcohol. . . .

It’s not easy to get students to describe the campus sex scene with someone nearly as old as some of their parents. If surveys are to be believed, intercourse occurs less frequently and more carefully on all campuses these days in the age of AIDS. Exactly how much happens at Notre Dame is anyone’s guess. It’s safe to say that contrary to expectations laid out in du Lac and the sentiment expressed on a favorite T-shirt—"Sex kills. So Come to Notre Dame and Live Forever"—universal premarital celibacy does not prevail.

The word students most often use in connection with male-female relations at Notre Dame—and it’s clearly the favorite of the females—is “warped.” Many think that keeping the genders in separate buildings and having deadlines by which half the student population must be out of the other half’s living spaces spawns abnormal relations.

Security assistants in women’s halls—usually older women —also come in for scorn. Women students say the monitors make male visitors feel unwelcome, “like they’re there to molest us,” in the words of one resident.


When getting to know one another, students in recent years may have found themselves in the company of the son or daughter of the producer of the Harry Potter movies, the coach of the Boston Celtics, the president of a Latin American nation. As Notre Dame’s prestige has grown, so has its share of celebrity parents and very wealthy students.

One senior recalls a friend who planned to ask her father for a spring-break trip to Las Vegas as a graduation present. The senior reminded her friend that Daddy had already given her her graduation presents—a new laptop computer and luxury SUV.

Students’ spring break travel plans frequently include cruises and trips to foreign countries, particularly those that don’t have drinking ages.

Contrary to fears and popular belief, however, Notre Dame has not turned into an exclusive club for rich kids. Thanks to the boost in financial aid, one no longer has to be a super genius or an athlete to get scholarship assistance that meets demonstrated need. About 9 percent of today’s students are first-generation college goers, a category threatened with extinction before the boost in financial aid.

No doubt today’s students are more worldly, many of them having already traveled abroad before coming to college. And about 40 percent of Notre Dame students study abroad at some point, the highest percentage among doctoral universities, according to one recent survey. But it’s not clear whether these survivors of an ever-more-competitive admissions process are any smarter than their predecessors.

The longtime science professor scoffs at the record SAT heights. “What that means is that they have learned how to take tests.” But he says students are convinced they’re smarter.

He recalled recently receiving a critical e-mail from a student who was upset about her scores on the first two tests of the semester. “I’m obviously smart,” she wrote, “because I’m here at Notre Dame.” Other faculty and administrators also detect a certain presumptuousness.

The science professor once received an e-mail from another student who had missed a class. The student explained that a heavy snowfall had made getting out of bed appear uninviting. He wanted to know how much of the current chapter they were working on would be covered in the next test and if the professor had any advice on how to study for it.

The professor says, “I couldn’t imagine in previous years a student coming up to me and saying ‘I couldn’t get out of bed’ and then asking me a bunch of questions on things he should know but didn’t because he couldn’t get out of bed.” He theorizes that the detached nature of e-mailing versus talking face to face may promote such, perhaps unconscious, effrontery.

This begs a final point.

Such missteps stand out in faculty and administrators’ memories because they’re the exceptions. Most observers say students today share many of the same traits as their forebears at Notre Dame: a tremendous work ethic, a dedication to helping others, a desire to create a life with meaning. An estimated 85 percent of students engage in some form of service work, an increase of only about 10 percent from 15 years ago, according to the Center for Social Concerns. “I have friends who teach in the Ivies and at Duke,” says Werge, the longtime English professor, “and there isn’t that same level of social and moral commitment to justice and a desire to give something back.”

Accounting professor Ken Milani, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1972, heads a program in which students help people of limited means prepare their tax returns free of charge.

“It’s an awful lot of work,” for two elective credits, he says. Preparing the returns requires not only working with a different segment of the population than Notre Dame students typically come from but careful study of tax rules and attention to detail. If the returns are prepared incorrectly, Milani will have to make them right in July when notification comes from the IRS.

The program does roughly 3,000 returns each year, “and I get back in the summer maybe 12 to 15 [with problems],” he says.

Recruiting students to participate in the program has never been a problem. Past participants recommend it to their friends.

Describing the business students’ work with the program, Milani is reminded of what Father Hesburgh used to say of Notre Dame students and the mission of faculty. Hesburgh said students arrived on campus already possessing “four Cs.” They were caring, concerned, committed and compassionate.

“We add the fifth C, which is competent.”

Ed Cohen is an associate editor of the magazine.