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Column: What’s making students ‘less resilient’?

Something very disturbing is happening on college campuses. A 2014 survey by the American College Health Association found that 94 percent of counseling center directors reported a steady increase in the number of college students with severe psychological problems, and 89 percent reported an increase in the number of students arriving on campus who were already taking prescription medication for anxiety or depression.

Coupled with an increase in diagnosable psychiatric disorders is a reported decline in average student resilience — the ability to manage and bounce back from the bumps of everyday life.

In a recent Psychology Today blog post, renowned educator Dr. Peter Gray points out that students are increasingly having emotional crises over problems of everyday life, such as conflicts with roommates or receiving bad grades. The worry among educators is that a lack of student resilience is interfering with the academic mission of colleges and universities.

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The most frequently cited culprits implicated in declining student resilience are “helicopter parenting” and an overly regimented K-12 education system that together arrest normal child development and infantilize young adults. As a result, Gray argues, we have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems.

Yet feedback from parents and students tell a very different story — one in which the economy plays a starring role. They describe a world that is far more competitive and less forgiving than the world of their parents or grandparents, a world in which failure is not an option.

As one commenter on Dr. Gray’s blog post put it:

This article didn’t mention the economy, which was one huge blind spot. As a professor and parent of a teenager, I can tell you how this works. Beginning in about the 4th grade, middle and upper middle class parents start to worry—does their kid have all their ducks in a row to get to a good college, which is necessary to get into law school, medical school, a good grad program. Are they taking advantage of every opportunity, sports, music, volunteer gigs? They perceive that the competition is fierce, the margin for error limited, so they “take over.” Sure, the consequences are disastrous, but so is going to college only to accumulate debt and not find a secure job. So, absolutely, parents meddle. These kids were 10–15 years old when the economy crashed. Losing your job, your home, your retirement—makes you do crazy things for your kids. And when parents see other parents doing this, they follow suit.

Students entering college today are also well aware that they can expect to incur shocking amounts of student debt while earning college degrees. In the past 20 years, in-state tuition and fees at public universities have increased by nearly 300 percent. And with higher costs come more debt.

According to recent estimates, Americans owe nearly $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, spread out among about 43 million borrowers. The average Class of 2016 graduate is estimated to have over $37,000 in student loan debt, up 6 percent from last year.

To make matters worse, there are now hundreds of companies that entice graduates into scams aimed at capitalizing on their financial desperation. Many simply pass off federal government programs as their own and bill the unwitting graduate for it, while others charge enrollment or subscription fees up to $600.

A major reason why students struggle to pay off their loans is that the degrees they worked so hard to earn are not guaranteed to land them jobs. According to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate for young college graduates is currently 7.2 percent, compared with 5.5 percent in 2007. Those who are lucky enough to land a job often must settle for one for which they are overqualified. Today, the underemployment rate for young college graduates is 14.9 percent; in 2007, it was 9.6 percent.

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Many educators also seem to miss the very crucial fact that college populations today are more socioeconomically and ethnically diverse than they were in the past. Elite colleges now have students who have faced more injustice and significant life challenges — economic and otherwise — in their 18 years than most college professors have in their entire lives. When they demand that colleges and universities be “safe places,” they are not questioning the right to free speech. Instead, as Yale Dean Jonathan Holloway describes it, they are expressing the pain and frustration that arises from feeling constantly marginalized and treated as though they are inferior and don’t belong. To put salt in the wound, the earning power of a college degree is much lower among those who come from lower socioeconomic groups.

In short, college students today perhaps are not less resilient than students of the past. Perhaps they are instead showing the strain that comes from grappling with serious threats and challenges that their predecessors did not face — ruinous student debt, poor job prospects and college campuses in which they feel foreign and unwanted.