In a Word: The Adjective Question

by Sophie Blumert 

If you could describe the students at your school in one word…

Sometimes, in an hour-long discussion or interview, a single word can be powerful—one word can signal a lot about one’s perspective. In our large, national study of higher education we asked participants what we thought of as a warm-up question: “If you could describe the students at this school in one adjective, what would it be, and why?” Perhaps surprisingly, this question elicited intriguing findings.

First, we noticed a large proportion of what we think of as non-substantive adjectives — ones that do not denote any particular meaning, or which fail to offer any insight into differing student populations. This category included words such as “nice,” “friendly,” “genuine,” “endearing,” and “kind.” While these words are quite positive, and we were happy to hear that participants had favorable perceptions of students, they are more superficial and told us very little about the culture of the school.

Second, we heard from a number of participants about students’ level of motivation. Most commonly, the words “ambitious” and “driven” were used to describe students’ commitment to their goals (though we also heard the opposite; “lazy,” “unmotivated,” etc.). Though these adjectives were mentioned across constituencies and across schools, we noted some clear qualitative differences. In particular, participants from “high selectivity” schools described the pressure that students put on themselves to succeed; to get the best grades, to participate in the most activities, and eventually to obtain the highest paying jobs.

“Um, so in that way it’s just like the atmosphere here, it’s very like, to be negative about it, it’s very like a lot of pressure, a lot of tension, really just, you know, a high stress environment. Um, maybe this is also me speaking out of like an econ major.  Um, ’cause it seems like very heavy in terms of like the financial tools, and like consulting, and things like that where, um, the recruiting for that is very heavy here, so that’s like what people here think they go into, they’re gonna do, and that’s like a very high stressed job. But… um, yeah, I just think like overall, even like when I talk to students from like they’re our engineering school it’ll just be like yeah, like I always feel like there’s a grind, and, you know, it’s never like you just sort of like get a moment to enjoy what you’ve accomplished. It’s more like, okay, well what else do I need to get done?”

Conversely, at “low selectivity” schools, participants described a sense of ambition and drive that was quite different:

“Ambitious because, I- I- everyone’s here to, like I said before, to, to move on to the next level. Um, and you have to have a certain amount of ambition to want to do that. And they overcome some really serious hardships. I mean, um, you know, we have students who are homeless, we have students who, um, am I gonna eat my next meal or am I gonna buy a metrocard to go to class? Uh, so, when you look at it from that perspective, you know, having to deal with those realities, that’s, there’s some drive there.”

We note that one type of “ambition” or “drive” is not necessarily better or worse than another; but this choice of vocabulary provides insight into the types of challenges that students face while in college. Unlike the non-substantive adjectives, words about students’ motivations reveal aspects of the atmospheres on different campuses.

Finally, the group of adjectives that came up the most frequently gave us critical insight into what participants valued about their campus. A large proportion of our participants chose a word to describe differences among students, as opposed to choosing a word that reflected common features of the overall student body, school culture, or ethos of the community. In particular, across all constituencies in our sample—both those on and off campus—respondents overwhelmingly used the term “diverse” to describe the student body; this lexical choice accounts for nearly a fifth (17%) of all of the adjectives suggested, and at five of the ten schools in our sample it was the top adjective.  Given that there are hundreds, if not thousands of possible descriptors, this convergence is remarkable.

Through further analysis, we learned a lot about the term “diverse” and how people used it to describe students at their school. Most participants used the term in one of two ways: 1) to describe demographic diversity, 2) to describe intellectual diversity and different interests (less interestingly, some participants use it in a general and, accordingly, unrevealing context). Of the participants who chose “diverse” as their adjective, nearly three-quarters (72%) defined it as ethnic and cultural diversity.

Across all of the schools, students used the adjective “diverse” in approximately one-third of responses. However, we note some clear differences across schools. In general, participants at high selectivity schools used the word “diverse” less often than those on medium or low selectivity institutions. In some cases, these students at the highly selective schools would describe the opposite, using words such as “white,” “homogenous,” or “rich,” to describe a distinct lack of cultural diversity among the student body. 

Interestingly, in cases where students from higher selective schools did use the adjective “diverse,” they most often talked about a diversity of interests. Additionally, some students at these schools opted for a different term entirely when talking about this difference: quirky. While these two adjectives seem to denote similar concepts, there appeared to be a difference in how participants felt when describing them; more specifically, “diversity” tended to have a more positive connotation, whereas “quirky” leaned more negative.

“I hate this word, but like, quirky.  Interviewer: Uh-huh.  Interviewee: Um, just because everybody that I’ve met at [School] has like, very different passions and I guess … Like, everybody’s from like, very different backgrounds so when you put us all together, it’s a very weird mix of people…”

Participants almost begrudgingly used this term, often saying that it didn’t offer any meaningful insights into what the student body was actually like (“I know that, a lot of people, people… would be like, “quirky.” Like, every time! Like honestly, like, it might be true. Um, that’s, also though that’s such a vague adjective. Um, so what the heck does quirky mean?). In contrast, this type of explanation rarely came up when students used the adjective “diverse.”  

“I will say, diverse… I think one of the first, um, one of the first things that you notice when you go to [School] is that you see a lot of people from different communities, from different countries. Um, and I think that’s one of like, things that I liked the most because I was able to learn from different cultures and make friends from all over the world. So that’s, that’s actually something I really liked over there. It helped me expand my knowledge on certain things.”

Adult constituencies also used the term “diverse” in high frequencies (25% of on-campus adults, and 47% of off-campus adults). Similar to students, the majority of adult constituencies used the term to describe cultural and ethnic diversity; furthermore, participants from higher selectivity schools spoke more about intellectual diversity (if they talked about diversity at all).

However, we found that on-campus adults, when compared to students and off-campus adults, tended to use adjectives to describe differences more generally; they offered terms such as “varied” “eclectic” or “uneven.” Overall, it seems that faculty and administrators were hesitant to choose one adjective; they did not feel that it would accurately capture the qualities of their students. Opting for terms like “diverse,” “quirky,” or “different” was a way for participants to describe the rapidly changing demographics, interests, and abilities of students in the 21st century. 

Sometimes, one word is not enough to describe college students. But the frequency of the term “diverse” gave us a sneak peek into a key finding of our study: the value that a great many participants placed on exposure to difference and diversity. And while the definitions of “diverse” did not always align, the value that all constituencies placed on it seems to have been similar; participants agree that diversity is a key aspect of the college experience, and the adjective question was a clear indicator of that. How diversity is conceived of and plays out across various campuses and constituencies will be one of the themes of the book that Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner are currently drafting. Stay tuned!

© Sophie Blumert 2020

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