Are today’s students too confident?

Sixty per cent think they’re above average

New research is adding to weight to the theory that today’s students are more confident than ever — too confident, according to some experts.

A new study shows that 60 per cent of first-year students in 2009 rated themselves as intellectually above average. In 1966, only 39 per cent declared themselves intellectually superior on a similar survey.

“There are some advantages and some disadvantages to self-esteem, so having some degree of confidence is often a good thing,” Jean Twenge, one of the study’s authors, told USA Today. However, “it’s not just confidence. It’s overconfidence,” she said. Twenge, a San Diego State University professor, theorized in her book Generation Me that overconfidence prevents young people from learning how to deal with failure.

In the new study, she and her co-authors argue that increasing intellectual confidence is caused by ever-increasing grades — so-called grade inflation — which makes students feel ever smarter. They point out that in 1966, only 19 per cent of American students entered university with at least an A-minus grade average from high school. By 2009, more than twice as many did (48 per cent).

In Canada, grade inflation may be even worse. Last year, the Canadian University Survey Consortium found that 70 per cent of first-year students reported having an A-minus average or above in high school. That’s up from 40 per cent in the early 1980s and it’s astronomically higher than the five per cent of A-grades that were historically awarded, according University of Western Ontario sociologist and higher education critic Dan Côté. (He made similar arguments to Twenge’s assertions in his book Ivory Tower Blues.)

But not everyone agrees that increasing confidence is a bad thing. Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University who studies youth, told USA Today that he doesn’t question Twenge’s results, but he thinks that students merely have “[the] confidence that we wished we had” — and he thinks that’s a good thing. Other experts argue that increasing confidence has caused more students to volunteer.