Why college students are more anxious and alienated than ever

“Creating a community of belonging:” that was the core promise at a small upstate college we visited this spring. With weeks to go before the May 1 “decision day” deadline, administrators were making their final pitch to a roomful of prospective freshmen and their parents.

“Belonging means to be at home,” one student declared in a three-minute video that opened the presentation.

“Being a family,” another said. “Where we all accept each other.”

“This is new,” I whispered to my husband.

After 10 years of college-searching with our three older children, we thought we had universities’ messaging down pat. Countless campus tours, college fairs, and stacks upon stacks of slick brochures that packed our mailbox for months touted the premise that college is where ambitious Americans prep for success.

“Ignite change,” urged Villanova University in 2014. “Become essential,” Rhodes College exhorted. Vanderbilt students were “Holding ourselves to higher standards” back then.

But this year, as our youngest son collected his own small forest’s worth of college literature, we noticed a shift.

Author Mary Kay Linge (in red) and her family celebrate her son Peter’s 2019 graduation from Loyola University New Orleans.
John Linge

“You belong here,” Johnson & Wales University assured him from the cover of a mailer highlighting on-campus counseling services and therapy dogs. Baylor University boosted the “#BaylorFamily.” Tulane laid claim to the nation’s happiest students. “We Are Collaborative . . . Grounded . . . Supportive,” soothed Washington University in St. Louis (never mind its super-competitive 13% acceptance rate).

In the wake of the largest enrollment decline in 50 years — a sharp 6.5% drop over the course of the coronavirus pandemic — colleges are frantically wooing kids to campus, and desperate to keep them happy once they arrive.

Even before COVID-19 forced millions of college students into dismal virtual classrooms, a pair of Harvard researchers found that secondary education had become an increasingly miserable experience for many.

A recent study found a 50% rise in mental health disorders among college students between 2013 and 2021.

For “The Real World of College” (MIT Press), out now, Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner interviewed 2,000 college students, staffers, professors and parents at 10 liberal-arts schools. They were shocked to find that 31% of students on every type of campus – from exclusive universities like Duke to CUNY’s Queens College and Borough of Manhattan Community College – felt alienated and anxious.

Their results dovetailed with a new study that found a 50% increase in mental health problems among college students between 2013 and 2021.

Students who lack a sense of belonging on their campuses are less likely to graduate and more likely to transfer out after their freshman year, multiple studies have found. The percentage of those who return as sophomores, known as a school’s retention rate, is a key metric for US News & World Report and other college rankings.

1 of 4
Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI, offers a particularly robust range of campus wellness services, including dedicated counseling sessions and therapy dogs.
In their effort to appeal to students' need for connection, Baylor University in Waco, TX, launched the "#BaylorFamily" hashtag.
Tulane University in New Orleans is all about happiness -- so much so they claim to possess the nation's "happiest students."
While it may be highly-competitive, Washington University in St. Louis still insists it's "Collaborative...Grounded...(and) Supportive."

So, as a result, cuddly therapy dogs, goat yoga sessions during midterms, campus wellness centers and “family” branding have taken precedence.

And yet, none of those band-aids attack the real problem: a crazy-making internal perfectionism among students, fueled by the mania to get accepted at all. “The behaviors that got you into this place . . . will kill you,” one English professor told the researchers.

“I was so fixated on where I might get accepted that I never stopped to ask myself: Why? Why am I going to college?” said Katie Abramowitz, a research assistant on Fischman and Gardner’s survey project.

In their quest to keep students happy, universities are even bringing therapy animals on campus.
Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Blame it on us parents, our pressure-cooker high schools, on the colleges themselves for the sky-high price tags that make us demand visible results – a great career, a grad-school berth – for the Tesla-level expenditure necessary to get that diploma.

Whatever the cause, kids have internalized the idea that breakneck résumé-building is the end, not the means. Students who see college in purely transactional terms, Fischman and Gardner found, are far more likely to fall victim to the alienation and stress that leads them to quit.

Even before COVID-19 forced millions of college students into dismal virtual classrooms, a pair of Harvard researchers found that secondary education had become an increasingly miserable experience for many.

When our son chose to accept the offer from the “community of belonging” (which he asked me not to name), we celebrated — and sat him down for a talk. Don’t just check the boxes to complete your major, we told him; don’t fill out your schedule with easy As. This is your once-in-a-lifetime chance to stretch and grow, to take intellectual risks, to develop deep learning skills, to become a better thinker, neighbor, parent and citizen.

That’s the purpose and the promise of a liberal arts education, after all – and four years from now, it’s what we hope our son will have gained.

Mary Kay Linge is a Staten Island mother of four — three college graduates and one soon-to-be college freshman — and a New York Post reporter.