At one time in the history of America, taking the College Board entrance exams was a ticket to a world of fun and freedom. Before the college admissions scandal and snowplow parents, going to college was a time to separate from parents and develop the skills needed to be an adult. At the same time, the freedom of higher education meant being exposed to new ideas and new beers and experimenting with social norms around sex, relationships, and personal hygiene. Animal House wasn’t a documentary, but it wasn’t far off. And the moral of the story resonated through the late 1990s and even into the 2000s: College is supposed to be fun.
Not so much anymore. For many of today’s students, college is a distressingly expensive, stressful, and incredibly serious endeavor. Young adults enter college with the explicit understanding that they are taking on massive amounts of debt in hopes of earning higher wages and behave accordingly. That means fewer toga parties and more Socratic learning, fewer misadventures and more time in the library. According to Dr. B. Janet Hibbs, co-author of The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, this is increasingly depriving young people of the chance to not only learn, but learn how to be happy.
“While kids are still really happy to go away to college for the sense of freedom and independence, part of what the experience is now is that college is a much more pressured environment,” Hibbs says. “Because of social media, fear of missing out, constant comparison culture, and time management day in and out.”
Fatherly, spoke with Hibbs about what college looks like today, how we got to this sad state of affairs and how parents can (hopefully) help fix it.
The premise of your book is basically that college isn’t fun anymore. Why is that? Should we blame shifts in academic culture, which looks way different now than it did even a decade ago, or does it go beyond the halls of the academy?
Kids going to college have internalized a culture of fear. Researchers have just begun to understand the impact of the Great Recession on kids. There was a housing bubble, parents lost their houses, people were out of work, and the kids in college today lived through it. They saw what happened to their parents or family. They had an increased sense of helplessness about what happened to their families. Even those who were better protected know people who lost a house or a job. They had friends that it happened too. It was such a broad swath of American culture.
Now, there is a mindset barrier that is particularly challenging for kids. It’s “fear of not making it”.
That makes sense, but surely kids who aren’t taking on debt are still having a good time. Is college still a playground for rich kids?
For well-resourced kids, they know their parents have put them in a top school or a brand name college, but their fear is that if they make a misstep their life is over. They won’t make it into the honors program or graduate school. They have a cognitive distortion. They truly believe that if they do anything that’s a variation on a very linear trajectory, they’ve ruined their future. That leads to destructive perfectionism — constant striving toward an uncertain future.
That sounds miserable. Now I’m imagining that kind of thinking compounded by the looming threat of loans and getting a bit queasy.
The kids who are taking a huge amount of debt to get into college? Their fear of not making it is different. Let’s say their families are really counting on them. They might be the first person to go to college. They might feel their degree will help their family or younger siblings. Their fear of not making it is that there is no safety net. And sadly a third of college students go to college and don’t graduate in eight years. The fear of not making it is that the bottom is going to drop out.
To what degree are parents responsible for these fears and to what degree are these fears a natural reaction to, well, economic reality?
When you talk about over-parenting, it’s a social norm. It used to just be something that upper-middle-class parents did. But now it’s across the socio-economic spectrum. Parents transmit their own sense of anxiety and stresses. They become more fearful of their children’s futures and their own futures and children pick it up. They understand. As my older son put it, “Your generation kicked out the Golden Ladder for us.” He’s right.
Things are different than 40 years ago. Part of what happened is there used to be a much smaller number of kids who went to college. It wasn’t assumed that everyone would go. It wasn’t assumed you had to go to college to have a “good life” or “good job”.
So what changed?
The Reagan administration pushed college for all in the 1970s by increasing the number of government loans with the goal of helping poor students go to college. Those programs dismantled vocational schools, vocational trades, and community colleges. Now, funding for state colleges and universities is thrashed. There are massive cuts across the board and suddenly families are on their own. Plus the pressure to go to college has increased because the other pathways to a “good job” are cut. Kids have to go to college.
And the creation of demand by the government followed by the withdrawal of government support allowed colleges to hike tuition rates?
Yes. Tuition rates are 1400-percentage higher than they were in 1970. That’s four times the rate of inflation and those aren’t even the top-shelf schools. The person who orchestrated some of the loan processing through Fanny Mae once said, ‘We unleashed a monster.’
I’ll be frank. It’s a monster I’m still dealing with. I have no idea if I’m going to have paid off my student debt by the time my kids take on theirs.
Part of what parents are doing in your generation are robbing their retirement to help kids go to college. It’s a broken system. I actually think it’s so broken something will probably change very soon.
In the meantime can parents help make college less stressful for this next generation of kids?
There’s a fine line between helicopter and help. As parents become more anxious, instead of promoting autonomy in children they promote the exertion of control. The message is, you can’t fail, I won’t let you fail, you need me and you won’t do well unless I rescue you. But one thing parents can do is let kids fail. You’re not going to learn unless you learn from your own experiences. Let kids fail when it’s not a big-time risk. Let them screw up. Don’t take their homework assignment in when they forget it. Let them have a zero. They will learn through natural consequences.
And what about as they get older?
There are helpful practical things parents can do. First, they can have conversations with their kids that cover social and emotional intelligence, like risk management, owning up to mistakes, practicing tolerance for setbacks, coping skills and embracing mental health literacy. Let kids talk about screwing up without wigging out.