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The Honest Guide to College

College students' mental health is suffering. Downplaying challenges of living away from home for the first time won’t make it any better.

About three million first-time college students will soon be arriving on campus—most of them coming directly from high school. About one million of them won’t make it through their first year or return as sophomores. This attrition is financially and emotionally devastating for families, and destabilizing for colleges. What goes wrong for so many students? And how can we stop the bleeding?

Financial challenges account for the largest chunk of these departures. But many others leave because the support services they and their parents feel they have been promised are often impossible for colleges and universities to provide. The number of students with mental health challenges has been rising for years—around 44 percent of all college students report symptoms of depression and anxiety. The rate of students taking psychiatric medication doubled between 2007 and 2019, and is now at 25 percent. 

But what concerns my colleagues and me is the growing expectation among parents and students that college administrators are there not to guide young people, whatever their challenges, in mastering the tasks of adulthood, but to spare young people from them. 

There are only about nine weeks between high school graduation and a student’s arrival on campus. That is very little time to prepare a teenager for the necessary shift from life under a parent’s management to (semi-) independent living. In as little as four weeks after classes begin, a first-year student who is unable to make that transition can end up unable to recover academically.

I have spent my career working with college students from enrollment through commencement. As a dean of students—at the University of Connecticut, and later at Wheaton College—I talked with numerous parents who were startled to discover that their child had not been attending class, had not been turning in assignments, maybe hadn’t bathed in days. The parents had expected more supervision; we had expected more personal accountability. Caught in that gap was a student about to lose a semester of academic credit and thousands of dollars of wasted tuition and housing fees, often covered by loans that still had to be paid back. 

Here is my advice for students and their parents—as well as my colleagues in higher education—on ways to help make sure students are ready for college.

For Families:

Master “Activities of Daily Living”

Admiral William McRaven got a best-selling book out of a commencement speech that encouraged graduates to “Make your bed.” Good advice, but first, your child has to be able to get out of bed. I have dealt with many students—students without mental health diagnoses or learning disabilities—who have limited experience being responsible for themselves. They find getting up to get to class on time a challenge. This is not a task that should be left for the summer before college. It’s the obligation of parents to let their children grow up before they arrive on campus. This experience comes from summer or after-school employment, sleep-away camp, household chores, taking their own medication, and caring for their belongings. If a student can’t hold down a summer job, or prefers simply not to try, that student is not ready for the hard grind of college classes. 

It’s College, Not a Treatment Center

Does your child engage in harmful activities like cutting, or drinking, or holing up in their room and avoiding social activities? Are they ambivalent about taking the medication that you have carefully monitored for years? Do they have the necessary coping mechanisms required by an environment that regularly challenges confidence and self-esteem? Too often, parents’ expectations about the mental health and support services that will be available at college bear no relation to reality. Too often, families downplay or even fail to disclose early on the student’s situation, in an effort to improve chances of acceptance. Counseling centers are understaffed and typically employ professionals who are generalists with skills to work with anxiety, homesickness, and relationship challenges. But serious diagnoses require serious support, often better provided by off-campus practitioners who specialize in complex disorders.

I encourage families to continue with their current providers, taking advantage of virtual counseling where possible. Sticking with a therapist who is familiar with a student’s challenges is much more efficient than starting over with someone new.

It’s College, Not Kindergarten

I belong to a listserv for higher-ed disability professionals because I now consult for colleges on how best to serve students with autism. Recently someone asked for advice about certain requests made by parents. These included asking faculty to use more supportive language and to avoid criticism of students’ work. The responses by those on the listserv were, not surprisingly, incredulous. College instructors, whose goal is student learning, cannot—should not—avoid critiquing a student’s work. Another professional reported that she has been inundated with requests for extended time on assignments and exams. When she looks into the requests, she finds many students say they got this accommodation in high school, so they believe they should get it in college and beyond. She said the students seemed conditioned to be helpless and they didn’t understand why she doesn’t automatically approve extra time. If students are so fragile that they can’t deal with criticism, or if they can’t meet deadlines, it may be time to reconsider college.

Take a Step Back

There is no shame in not being fully ready to leave home. Being honest about the chasm between wanting to go to college and being ready for it can lead to better outcomes. Previously, I’ve proposed what I call a “half-step year” for students who have mental health, substance abuse, or eating disorders, or who are reliant on parents, counselors, and medication to function adequately. A half-step year means that a student lives at home while attending a local college. They learn the self-advocacy and self-care necessary to survive in college, practicing them with a parental safety net in place before taking the full step onto a campus and into a residence hall.

I’ve encouraged others to consider a full gap year. This is not just about enhancing the resume of well-to-do kids. Spending a year at a job (where an employer doesn’t have the time or obligation to address personal issues), or volunteering, or traveling independently can result in game-changing gains in maturity and personal accountability.

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For Student Affairs Professionals:

Don’t Oversell—It Will Come Back to Bite You

In their recruitment of students, eager colleges tell parents that their children will be well cared for, safe, and generally managed by an extremely competent staff. That’s not true. Campuses are barely supervised environments, and even the small, caring institutions that take pride in individual attention have cracks into which students can fall. I’m in a Facebook group for parents of college-bound students. One mother, whose daughter has multiple learning and mental health challenges, shared a lengthy list of the schools her daughter is interested in—all of which promise they will provide excellent mental health services. I’m almost certain they can’t. 

Schools are generally unable to meet the growing demands of an increasingly needy student body. Early in the admissions process, campus professionals need to be honest about this. 

Not Everything Is Trauma

I sometimes think that student affairs professionals, despite our best intentions, might be making things worse. We spend so much time with struggling students and their families, and we are so focused on noting and anticipating what might cause students distress and offense that we may be scaring the hell out of students and parents—and undermining students’ resilience. Students heading to college are now inundated with information from the school about seeking mental health services, about addressing anxiety, about sexual assault, and about suicide awareness. Our profession has become obsessed with what’s known as “trauma-informed” response. We learn the skills of “trauma-informed support” and the tools of “trauma-informed investigations” of sexual misconduct. We learn the Five Guiding Principles of Trauma-Informed Care at training, and do our best to incorporate these into our everyday practice. 

The result? We now use “trauma-informed communication” in our efforts to prepare and protect young people from the terrifying experiences that await them…as college students. If a student isn’t afraid of what’s to come when they graduate from high school in June, then by the final day of new student orientation, they will likely be shaken at the prospect of what’s ahead. 

A student attending college represents two significant investments: by the student in the institution, and by the institution in the student. Ruthless honesty on all sides—before the school year begins—makes the payoff of that investment far more likely.

Lee Burdette Williams is a higher education consultant. She runs the College Autism Network. 

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