An interesting article, if not an ominous one, appeared in Psychology Today that discussed the troubling lack of resilience in modern college students. They defined this lack of “resilience” as an inability to deal with the problems of everyday life, including having emotional crises over simple things like roommate conflicts or getting a “B” grade. This has actually been a big issue for colleges, especially their counseling centers, which become overwhelmed by students seeking help for even the smallest things. One writer at Inc. magazine even commented on this trend, saying that we should be “terrified” of this next generation workforce for their lack of resiliency.
But the implications of resilience in college students goes far beyond just emotional health. The article in Psychology Today mentioned how some Professors feel compelled to make things easier for students, primarily so the student does not have an emotional episode or so they don’t get bad reviews at the many popular teacher rating websites. One of the theories mentioned for why these students cannot handle life’s problems on their own is because of their parents, who always stepped in to solve problems, and now these parents expect the college to step in since their child is no longer at home. The article mentioned that, because of this, one head of Counseling for a major university referred to themselves as becoming a “helicopter institution,” essentially a surrogate of the parenting style to which these students had grown accustomed.
The problem with the issue of student resilience, and a school’s adaptation to it, may not be as clear-cut as one might think. For example, there are some Professors that avoid using the assigned text book at all, then test students only from what is covered in lecture. This is a high school teacher’s approach to instruction in college, and many of my students refer to this kind of watered-down class as “a joke,” which can also affect Professor reviews. There are other Professors who adapted by shortening papers, giving study guides, posting lecture notes, or by using other simplification means. While most students appreciate the convenience of this, all of these adaptations are actually a disservice to students because not all college Professors do this. Many stick to the traditional lecture-textbook readings-take an exam approach and test from all the information covered or assigned. New students can quickly get the wrong impression about college requirements and Professors can accidentally reinforce the false belief that what it takes to do well in college is exactly the same as high school. It’s not. While there may be some exceptions, college requires a much greater level of independent work, and it also requires learning new formats and approaches to solving old problems on the fly. Diluting the customary level of work to cater to a student’s existing skills not only prevents the building of new ones, it affects the bigger picture: Colleges then de-value their own degrees, dilute their own brand, and even weaken graduate skill levels overall which can affect them later in the workforce. Countries like Japan and China have incredibly competitive and rigorous higher education systems, will our students who graduated with cut back requirements be able to compete later? This dilution issue becomes clear when you think about how many professionals you personally know that are not from the U.S.: We are in a global economy, and our graduates are competing against others who are highly skilled because of undiluted requirements. The simplification of standards becomes unsustainable for a college, since it will ultimately hurt their reputation by producing sub-skilled grads. The Inc. article I referred to above clearly shows the concerns of the work world about this concerning trend.
The concept of Academic Resilience must also be added to the overall interpretation of how to help modern college students strengthen their overall abilities. Just like the Directors of college counseling centers are seeing a surprising level of emotional fragility in modern students, I am seeing them enter college with only the rudimentary skills needed to do well in a “hand held” high school curriculum. For example, many students I’ve worked with were praised as being a “good writer” in high school, but then had to adapt to many new formats like position papers, reaction papers, and lab reports then they could not do it. In many cases they wrote flowery, prosaic works but made the beginner’s mistake of not even answering the question assigned. When faced with open ended assignments, they became utterly paralyzed, because they were always given detailed prompts from their teachers so they could not come up with their own topics or structure for the project. Other students legitimately felt they could graduate from college without ever having to read a text book, or any book for that matter, because they were accustomed to their teachers testing directly from class notes. There are many examples I could give, but the real issue is that pre-college experience with the formats and requirements they will face during college expands their repertoire of what they can handle and builds Academic Resilience, which not only helps their grades but ensures they don’t have a crushing emotional reaction because they earned a low mark. They’ve experienced college-level formats before, know how to handle them, and so they work up to their ability when they reach college.
The bottom line for any college student is that they must perform, and perform well enough to remain at their school. In this context, emotional resilience and Academic Resilience are intertwined since they mutually support each other. Without the wherewithal to face new challenges academics will suffer, and without the interest and ability to learn new formats or new ways of completing tasks there will be emotional consequences because of bad grades. The ability to incorporate Professor feedback, sharpen their skills, and tackle new demands are all key components of Academic Resilience, which should be deliberately developed prior to entering college.
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national level Higher Education Consultant based in Pittsburgh, PA. He’s worked with students and parents across the U.S. about college issues since 2001, and is a member of CSRDE that focuses on best practices in helping students. He is also a member of NACADA, the national college advising association in the U.S. Please see the program page for services Jeff offers.