- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2023

College freshman Sophie Wakefield says stress from taking virtual classes almost made her drop out this year. But that was before she learned her classmates had considered quitting, too.

“Moving to college and making new friends while balancing online courses and a heavy workload was hard,” Ms. Wakefield told The Washington Times. 

“At times, it felt like everyone else was having the perfect college experience while I was struggling like I was doing something wrong, and I considered dropping out. Understanding that others were having a similar experience helped me turn the corner.”   

She says it was difficult for her to replace her high school friend group after arriving at Point Loma Nazarene University in the fall because the San Diego liberal arts school has insisted on online classes even as the COVID-19 pandemic fades.

Ms. Wakefield is among the growing share of young people who cite emotional stress for avoiding college or dropping out since the pandemic shuttered campuses in March 2020 and who blame their teachers for adding to their anxieties.

A survey published Thursday by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, a group that advocates for expanding college access, found that 2 out of 5 undergraduates say they often experience emotional distress at college.

More than 40% of 12,000 current undergraduates surveyed had considered dropping out in the previous six months, up from 34% in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the survey, conducted in the fall.

Most cited emotional stress and personal mental health as the reason they considered dropping out — more than finances, inflation or the difficulty of their studies.

“Current freshmen had half of their high school careers disrupted by COVID-19,” said Michael New, a professor of social research at the Catholic University of America. “This hurt their preparation for college and is contributing to lower enrollment and higher dropout rates.”

Young people from grade school to college have been in a mental health freefall for more than a decade, but experts say pandemic restrictions made the situation even worse.

“Combined with changes in students’ learning preferences and expectations, it’s critical for leaders in education to identify broader solutions for engagement in higher education and to design strategies specific to their campuses,” said Kelly A. Davis, a youth advocate at Arlington, Virginia-based Mental Health America.

Much of the crisis comes from a growing lack of the certainties students once relied upon for their emotional stability, said Ronald J. Rychlak, a professor and former associate dean at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

He pointed to the rising trend of students questioning their biological sex as an example of how students no longer feel at peace with themselves or the world around them.

“They have been told there is no truth,” said Mr. Rychlak, a faculty athletics representative. “Parents don’t marry, unborn babies are clumps of cells, modern life is destroying the climate, men can become women and vice versa. Modern society is leaving an imprint on the youth, and many are having a hard time dealing with it.”

Nearly two-thirds of adults who have never enrolled in college cited emotional stress as a key reason, Gallup and the Lumina Foundation also reported on Thursday.

That was the fourth most common reason for skipping college after the cost (81%), inflation (77%) and work conflicts (69%).

Multiple reports have shown pandemic shutdowns of schools, coupled with the transition to virtual learning, led to a spike in anxiety and depression among students at all levels of the education system.

That mental burnout hit high school and college students hardest, said clinical psychologist Thomas Plante, a member of the American Psychological Association. He pointed to a 2021 alert from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy about a growing youth mental health crisis.

“We only have correlational research to go on, but the pandemic is associated with higher stress levels for sure,” said Mr. Plante, who teaches at Santa Clara University in California.  “It is likely a confluence of factors including the state of the world, social media influences, high expectations for success, financial concerns, lack of stress management skills and so forth.”

About 1 in 7 college students reported thinking about suicide in fall 2021, up from previous years, according to the most recent survey from the Healthy Minds Network.

A more recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of federal data found that half of all people between the ages of 18 and 24 have reported anxiety and depression symptoms this year. By comparison, only about a third of adults said the same.

“Pursuing higher education does not happen in a vacuum,” said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a physician at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “If universities are not prepared to offer resources to such students, burnout will result in fewer attending and completing college.”

However, others cautioned against using the emotional problems students mentioned in surveys to explain drops in college enrollment.

“The subjective reports of individuals might be misleading or essentially confounded,” said Dr. John V. Campo, a pediatric psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

Other factors causing young people to skip or drop out of college include the leftist bias of professors against the values of families who send their children to college, said Peter Wood, president of the conservative National Association of Scholars.

“Relieving ‘stress’ sounds like something administrators can get their arms around, as opposed to undoing demography or persuading the American middle class that over-priced degrees in useless subjects are a good family investment,” said Mr. Wood, a former associate provost at Boston University.

The phrases “emotional stress” and “stress” are “wildly overused terms” that teach young people to recast inconveniences as medical crises, he added in an email.

“Children growing up in a war zone, who lack sufficient food or shelter, or who are abused or forced into harsh labor face real stress,” Mr. Wood said. “Most children growing up in contemporary America do not.”

When asked in surveys what they would change on campus, most students point to their professors.

More than half of respondents to a recent Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse survey of 3,004 students at 128 four- and two-year institutions said “teaching style” had made it difficult to succeed in their classes since starting college.

An even larger majority said they want more flexible deadlines for assignments.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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