Anxiety and College Students

Our two oldest grandkids left for college last week. They both attend a top-tier Ivy on the East Coast. They meet to work out most mornings before heading off to class, and both seem well settled. They remind me of the pleasures and challenges of my own college experience so many decades ago.

So it saddens me to read Frank Bruni’s New York Times review of the new book The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us  by Paul Tough. The author catalogs “student after student whose route to college and experience there are rocky in the extreme.” [1] He describes how disadvantaged students of lesser means are, both in terms of access and preparation. We have changed the way we think about college in a world that seems to offer less promise to future college graduates. And he asks an important question. “To spur innovation, compete globally and nurture prosperity in a country where factory jobs have ceased to be the answer, we need more, better college graduates. So why aren’t we doing more to create them?”[2] Though Tough describes a few programs to do just that, they are few and far between.

Psychology Today tackles this issue as well.[3] It identifies three factors:

  1. A focus on material success
  2. The rising cost of college
  3. “Delayed adulthood and external locus of control”[4]

Students today face mounting debt for an increasingly unsure financial future, a reasonable source of anxiety. And the advent of helicopter parenting and less independent play for children, allowing them to learn to self-regulate and get along with others [beautifully explained in The Good News About Bad Behavior, discussed in an earlier post], has led to delayed adulthood and fewer coping mechanisms. Dr. Diane Dreher writes, “Unfortunately, today materialistic values, college costs, and controlling parents are impairing this vital developmental period—and may be undermining our students’ ability to flourish.”[5]

I am not so blinded by rose-colored glasses as to remember my college days as anxiety-free. Though I was less worried about my future prospects than many students today, I did struggle with test anxiety and dorm relationship issues. And attending the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s certainly prompted a host of strong emotions about the Vietnam War, civil rights, and feminism. Perhaps one of the biggest differences stemmed from our naïveté… We really believed we could change the world, and that belief feels harder to sustain for now, even for a perennial optimist like me. I don’t think college students today find the same comfort in optimism.

For me college was a chance to meet diverse people and explore different points of view and areas of study. Our granddaughter had a healthy discussion with a male friend whose position on abortion is the opposite of hers – that’s how we find mutual understanding if not agreement. I’m not sure that kind of open discussion about controversial issues is common. It should be. College is a time for exploration and being exposed to diverse ideas. Somehow we need to explore ways to ensure that college provides those opportunities at less emotional cost. That means we need to explore how students and their families pay for college without impossible burdens. We certainly need to help children build emotional coping skills earlier in life by giving them more freedom to learn them. And we need to educate parents about the impact of their helicoptering and to convince parents that their conviction that a certain college or colleges will determine their child’s future is not only unfounded but harmful. We need a paradigm shift if we hope to develop the educated graduates our nation needs.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/03/opinion/college-graduates.html?searchResultPosition=1

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-personal-renaissance/201903/why-do-so-many-college-students-have-anxiety-disorders

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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