The Price Tag of Low Resilience in Students

While speaking to university faculty last semester, a group of teachers approached me to ask if I was seeing what they saw among college students:

  • Students felt traumatized when given a poor grade, making faculty reluctant to be honest with them or give them a B or C.
  • Students were calling campus police for minor incidents, such as seeing a cockroach in the residence hall or because a knob had come off the dresser.
  • Students were overwhelming the counseling office, setting appointments for problems that are normal, everyday “speed bumps” that life brings.

Just two months ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education included an article by Robin Wilson entitled, “An Epidemic of Anguish: Overwhelmed by Demand for Mental-Health Care, Colleges Face Conflicts in Choosing How to Respond.” In the article, Wilson recollects that universities have traditionally been institutions for higher academic education, where staff and faculty treat the students as adults, able to take care of their daily problems. Today, both students and parents are asking college to be substitute moms and dads (frequently, at the threat of a lawsuit). After interviewing the heads of counseling offices at various colleges, Wilson wrote:

Families often expect campuses to provide immediate, sophisticated, and sustained mental-health care. After all, most parents are still adjusting to the idea that their children no longer come home every night, and many want colleges to keep an eye on their kids, just as they did. Students, too, want colleges to give them the help they need, when they need it. And they need a lot. Rates of anxiety and depression among U.S. college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such illnesses. The number of students with suicidal thoughts has risen as well. Some are dealing with serious issues, such as psychosis, which typically presents itself in young adulthood, just when students are going off to college. Many others, though, are struggling with what campus counselors say are the usual stresses of college life: bad grades, breakups, being on their own for the first time. And they are putting a strain on counseling centers.

One head of a counseling center said:

Whether we want it or not, these students are bringing their struggles to their teachers and others on campus who deal with students on a day-to-day basis. The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the University and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.

The Price Tag of Low Resilience

Three obvious “price tags” surface when examining this challenge:

  1. Students’ emotional angst will negatively impact their grades.
  2. When students are fragile, they often depend on others for solutions.
  3. Regardless of a student’s GPA, if they aren’t resilient, it’ll hinder their career.

The Price We Must Pay to Build Resilience

While the solutions are complex, much of the answer lies in our equipping students to become “problem solvers.” In order to do this, we assume the leadership style:

Management by Objective

Early on, we must allow them to struggle, to make their own way, to figure things out, to navigate a difficult challenge, and to face consequences for poor decisions. I have often said, I believe most students assume this reality: If I get into trouble or make a mistake, some adult will swoop in and save me.

This means we must learn to practice the principle of Management by Objective. When a student faces a problem, don’t immediately solve it for them or prescribe the steps to take. Instead, meet and come up with the objective they want to reach, then empower them to figure those steps out. Encourage them, coach them, support and believe in them, but compel them to solve the problem in their style, with steps they’ve created.

Psychologist Peter Gray said, “We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention. So now, here’s what we have: Young people, 18 years and older, going to college still unable or unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, still feeling that if a problem arises, they need an adult to solve it.”

It’s time we grow some resilient adults on our college campuses.

The Price Tag of Low Resilience in Students