Why College Students Have Trouble Growing Up

Philosophy Professor

Having talked in depth with CC students about their college experiences and read about student life at other colleges and universities, I find that institutions of higher education usually provide excellent environments for cognitive development, yet have trouble providing students with an adequate environment for social, moral or psychological growth. The result is that many students, feeling that they do not have the maturity of self or depth of personal skills to confront the difficult problems of adulthood, show a reluctance to enter the world beyond college. They are afraid of marriage and other adult forms of intimacy, and tremble at having to enter professional life. They invent wonderful stories for themselves and their parents about needing time off or wanting to travel after college, but often behind these marvelous plans lies a terrible fear: that they simply are not ready for the adult world. They are not ready because something did not happen during the college years that should have -- they did not grow up.

Ever since the 1970s when colleges relinquished the notion that they should act like parents (the doctrine of in loco parentis), they have let students construct their own social and personal lives with few restrictions and little guidance. Students, of course, welcomed this change -- even demanded it as part of the social revolution of the '60s -- for it meant that there were no adults around who might challenge their values and behavior. Students were happy not to be treated as children and faculty, now in an intensely competitive job market that favored publication over teaching and advising, decided that their time would be much better spent researching and writing than being with students.

The freedom granted students, however, has had its cost in patterns of arrested psychological, social and moral development. When Alexander Astin, the most important researcher of college life in America, decided to study how college life affects personality and self-concept, he was shocked to find that the most significant shift during the college years was a significant increase in the number of students experiencing a diminished sense of psychological well-being. He found that students tended to feel more depressed as seniors than they were as first-year students. They also felt "overwhelmed," or without the strength of self to deal with life's problems. The growth of self, he found, has not kept pace in college with the increasing complexity of life that college students experience.

There are numerous interrelated factors hindering the maturational process during the college years, including the age isolation college students face. When a typical high school graduate goes to college, the student rarely has personal (rather than professional) contact with anyone older or younger. There are typically no children or young adolescents on campuses who can help remind one of what the earlier stages of life were like. There is also an increasing absence of adults on campus. Dorms tend to be run either by peers or young adults. Professors are becoming less available to students in general and almost completely unavailable for non-academic guidance and role-modeling. Hence, college students often find themselves in a developmental vacuum with no children to remind them of what they have been and no adults to act as models for what they might become. The absence of adults is especially detrimental for, as Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant has persuasively shown, the most significant vehicle for post-childhood development is a mentoring relationship between a young person and an admired adult.

Age isolation also tends to reinforce the powerful hold of youth culture on college students. This culture rejects the traditional view that sees youth as a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, claiming instead that youth should be sustained for as long as possible and adulthood should be avoided like the plague. For all of its exhilaration and excitement, however, youth culture can only produce a repetition of adolescent forms of thought and action with no impetus toward development into mature forms of personal and social life.

Personal development occurs most dramatically in social interactions. It is in these interactions that students develop skills to relate to others, learn to deal with rejection and satisfy their needs to be known and loved for who they are. If the college social scene is dominated by alcohol and drugs, intoxication makes it exceedingly difficult to develop social skills, heighten responsiveness or deepen relationships. If every party centers on alcohol, students cannot confront new social problems to solve, find new ways of interacting with others or develop new possibilities for the deeper realization of the basic needs for recognition, empathy and friendship.

Another part of social life where growth can take place is in campus discussions about vital issues. If these discussions teach students to tolerate differences of opinion, listen carefully to all sides of a complex issue and feel the intense emotions of the participants without becoming overwhelmed before reaching a reasoned, thoughtful conclusion, maturity can and will develop. Unfortunately, the rise of political correctness has led to the near extinction of campus discourse about important issues. Rather than open, many-sided discussions, discourse situations now involve students advocating politically correct positions and demanding allegiance to them. Students who disagree do not merely hold different opinions, they are viewed as personally attacking the speaker, breaking solidarity or revealing prejudice against a group. Students who voice dissent risk the possibility of being labeled a racist, sexist or simply naive. In the face of such threats, most remain silent or avoid such discussions altogether. But advocating, showing allegiance or being silent makes little difference to the process of development for, in all cases, complexity is not encountered and growth does not take place.

The college environment also makes individuation difficult by making intimacy difficult. Intimacy -- a love relation in which two persons accept and affirm one another for who they are and not for the roles they are playing or facades they are masquerading -- is probably the greatest possible aid to personal development during the college years. It is hard to recognize self worth unless that worth is recognized by others.

With intimacy, childish narcissistic tendencies must be curbed in order to fully take into account and appreciate another person. A young person will rarely endure this kind of vulnerability without being in a strongly committed relationship. Such commitments are frustrated by the college environment, mainly because the college years are short and students either transfer, drop out or do not know what they want to do after college or where they want to do it. With this kind of uncertainty about the future, how can a student make a commitment to sustain a love relationship?

For many, going to college means preparing for a career in one of the key professions. Anything that is likely to compromise that goal must be held at arm's length. Love is the greatest obstacle to such single-mindedness and that which is most likely to deviate students from their professional pursuits. Joe is accepted into the law program at Berkeley; Susan wishes to pursue a Ph.D. in physics at MIT. They cannot allow themselves to fall too much in love or the dream of one will have to give way to the dream of the other.

These psychological problems, the loss of traditional support systems college students leave at home and the frequent loss of a narrative direction during the college years make it difficult for graduates at commencement to feel as though they have the strength and vitality of self to face the most complex and difficult form of adult life ever invented. While I believe CC does much better with these problems than most schools, it could still do more, especially with its anemic system of advising