"YOU’RE THROWING your future away!” my grandfather hollered through the phone. It was May of 1995. I was 18 and about to graduate from South Eugene High School, but instead of going straight to college, I had decided to backpack around the world with a friend.
No one in my family seemed to think this was a good idea—least of all my dad, who had grown up dirt-poor in Brooklyn but graduated from Yale with a master’s in engineering. To appease him and everyone else, I applied to the Robert D. Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon and was accepted. Then I deferred admission. Doing everything I had to do to get into college had burned me out on the notion of actually going. So I spent a year immersed in another kind of learning: working on organic farms in New Zealand, participating in a Buddhist wedding in Malaysia, standing open-mouthed in front of Michelangelo’s David in Florence.
By the time I began classes in 1996, I was really ready to commit to my education. To me, college was a privilege. The majority of my fellow frosh, on the other hand, seemed to see it as an opportunity to swill bad beer. Some popped Adderall like Altoids just to make it through the day. I started to think that most of these kids might not be cut out for higher ed.
I’m not saying they’d be better off without a college degree; you need one to make a decent living. According to the US Census Bureau, the annual median earnings for a man with only a high school diploma is $32,435; a bachelor’s earns him $57,397. But statistics do suggest that many people aren’t prepared for college at 18. Consider, for example, that only 53 percent of freshmen entering a four-year program will have graduated after five years, and one quarter won’t return for their second year, according to American College Testing, a nonprofit education research organization. Clearly, there’s a problem.
“Honors courses, standardized tests, and practice application essays … We have figured out how to help kids get accepted to college, but we fall short in helping them cultivate the skills needed to prosper there,” writes Jill Flury in the September 2007 issue of Edutopia, a magazine put out by the George Lucas Education Foundation.
David Conley, director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon, agrees, noting that colleges require students to be independent, self-reliant learners. High schools, however, tend to be heavily structured places where students are treated more like kids than adults. “Students in high school rarely encounter the kinds of problems or assignments for which the answer is not readily apparent,” he says. “They don’t learn to be persistent with tasks that are inherently difficult or challenging; they’re lost if they have to do more than repeat what they are told.” As a result, many students find college confusing and frustrating at first.
This lack of academic maturity, combined with the increasing pressure to obtain a degree, can place serious strain on a student’s emotional state. And it might well be why college students have more complex problems today than they did over a decade ago, including depression and thoughts of suicide, according to the American Psychological Association. In fact, a 13-year study involving 13,257 students who visited the counseling center at Kansas State University found a dramatic increase in mental health issues—and academic problems were among the top causes of such stress.