Lonely and Scared: College Students’ Culture of Immaturity

Jane Clark Scharl

In the past, college was not a place where people felt entitled to be comfortable. It was consciously uncomfortable, with cinderblock dorm rooms, mediocre cafeteria food, and strenuous courses from uncompromising faculty. Young people went to college to grow up—and, by and large, they did. They decorated their rooms with second-hand throw pillows and dollar-store strings of lights. They muscled through cafeteria meals till they could move off campus and cook for themselves. They stepped up to classroom challenges. But more than that, they learned to interact with groups of people they had not encountered before. They learned to deal with differing perspectives about the fundamental things in life, and they learned how to live alongside—and even befriend—the very people who disagreed with them. College students in 2019 are not learning those skills.

Based on the reports from across the country, today’s college students are far more fragile than their counterparts of other generations. They are less able to adapt to challenges, less prepared to cope with uncomfortable living situations, less competent to make their lives better through their own resources. And, most fundamentally, many of them are unable to exist alongside people who are different from them.

This fragility manifests itself in ways that sound satirical. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, a student complained to the administration about a poster advertising a college-wide Mafia game. She said the poster was “extremely offensive to me as an Italian American woman” and might “result in harassment of Italian American students on campus.”1 It sounds like a joke, but it was not—and even worse, the administration took the complaint seriously, demanding that the posters be removed.

In a similar incident at Bowdoin College, the administration went far beyond simply removing a poster. After students hosted a birthday party advertised as a “fiesta” and featuring tequila and sombreros, they were accused of “ethnic stereotyping.” According to the school newspaper, many Mexican and Mexican-American students “expressed exhaustion and frustration” at what they claimed was a “racist incident.”2 The college president described the party as an “act of bias” and the students who hosted were forced to vacate their room, banned from school gatherings like the Spring Gala, and required to complete re-education classes.3

College students demonstrate fragility in day-to-day activities like cooking and eating healthily as well. Researchers Katherine Broton and Sara Goldrick-Rab found that roughly half of students believe themselves to be “food insecure,” meaning that they feel they do not have access to decent nutrition.4 Some college students are likely working hard, budgeting well, and still struggling to put food on the table. But further research indicates that some of the students who identify as “food insecure” might be suffering because they lack basic life skills. A piece in Healthline about food insecurity offered tips that include insights like cooking at home is cheaper than eating out and avoiding pre-seasoned packaged food is healthier—basic knowledge, it seems, for U.S. adults.5 To describe half of American students as “food insecure” when they apparently do not know that cooking at home is cheaper than eating out is misleading. It may be more accurate to say that many college students are struggling to adapt to adulthood, which includes budgeting, cooking, and taking care of themselves.

This distinction is important because these two possibilities warrant different responses. If half of college students are truly hungry or malnourished despite working hard, budgeting carefully, and cooking at home, colleges may need to step in with funded food programs. If, however, students are struggling to maintain healthy nutrition because they do not know how to budget and eat well, any viable solution to the problem must help them learn these skills rather than merely giving them food.

The reality is this: Generation Z college students live in a state of anxiety verging on panic. They feel threatened by things that, for past generations, were simply part of life. They struggle to take care of their own daily needs. They try to suppress speech that they find offensive. They form mobs to silence unpopular ideas. And they demand that others—administrators, the government, society in general—intervene to “solve” these challenges rather than learning the skills to cope.

But there is a parallel reality at work here, one that must not be overlooked. This sense of perpetual insecurity has its roots in the strange new world these college students have grown up in. Before proposing solutions to the emotional fragility that distinguishes this generation of college students, it is important to consider what might be causing this fragility.

Immature, Anxious, Depressed, Suicidal

Maturity is the ability to interact with an environment and with others appropriately. The mature person can perform all of his functions—social, emotional, personal, intellectual—to maintain a healthy environment for himself and others. The immature person, by contrast, lives in a state of reaction. He does not interact with his world but instead reacts to it. Because his external surroundings have undue influence upon him, the immature person cannot maintain the complete, full sense of self that is necessary for thriving.

A key element of maturity is proportion. The mature person’s actions are rightly reasoned responses to events and people. They are proportionate, neither frivolous nor extreme. A mature response to being offended by a poster for a Mafia game on campus is to look at the whole picture: this is a game that students have played for decades, without result of violence or any observed increases in anti-Italian sentiment. It does not threaten anybody; it simply adapts a well-known cultural villain (who hasn’t been awed and terrified by The Godfather?) for the purposes of a game. It is roughly the same as appropriating Nazis to be villains in a superhero film or a video game.

Because it depends on being able to use reason, maturity requires a high degree of emotional resilience. Mature people are able to respond, not react, because they are not unduly compromised emotionally by their environment.

College students today demonstrate that they are catastrophically compromised emotionally. They report previously unheard-of levels of anxiety and depression. Depression among college students has increased 200 percent in the past fifteen years.6 In the 2017-2018 school year, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) reported that nearly 180,000 college students at 152 universities sought counseling for mental health reasons.7 Out of fifty-four mental health concerns investigated by the CCMH, generalized anxiety was by far the most common, affecting over 60 percent of college students seeking counseling—sometimes merely for help coping with basic daily tasks.8 One psychologist observed that emotionally, students are increasingly unable to handle “problems of everyday life.”9 Writing in Psychology Today, Peter Gray renders cases in which “a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a ‘bitch’ and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment.” In the second instance, the students ended up calling the police to come and set a mousetrap for them.10

Psychologist Linda Bips writes in the New York Times that “[m]any of today’s students lack resilience and at the first sign of difficulty are unable to summon strategies to cope.”11 For some students, this can be fatal. Suicide is the number two cause of death among college students12—and the statistics show that the crisis is getting worse. Over the past fifty years, the suicide rate among people aged 15-24 has increased by nearly 200 percent.13 In just the last few years, the number of students who have seriously considered suicide has increased by nearly one-third. In the fall of 2015, the American College Health Association found that 6.5 percent of college students had seriously considered suicide in the previous twelve months; by spring 2019, that number had increased to 9.3 percent.14 Nearly one in ten college students, in other words, has seriously considered suicide within the last year.

An Unstable World

These statistics raise the question: why are today’s college students increasingly less mature than their counterparts of previous generations? At least a partial answer concerns a world that is much different today than in generations past. College students now, through the lack of maturity that baffles older generations, may in fact be exhibiting a quasi-rational defensive reaction to a world fraught with unique threats.

Generation Z—those with birth dates ranging from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s—are the first true digital natives. They have never experienced a world without iPhones, social media, and constant internet usage. For them, the distinction between virtual reality and “real life” is meaningless; virtual reality is real life. Increasingly over the past decade, sociologists have been probing the effect of social media platforms and extensive internet use on mental health—and the results are not promising.

Some researchers, like professor of psychology Dr. Jean Twenge, blame the Generation Z mental health crisis squarely on their mobile phones.15 Constant access to the internet and to social media has created an environment in which young people compare themselves and their lives to the lives of millions of others, all of which are carefully filtered and curated. Compared with gorgeous Instagram shots painstakingly framed and edited, whose “real life” doesn’t look dull and inferior? Not even the social media stars’ lives measure up. One 18-year-old Instagram mega-star who quit social media altogether said, “Social media . . . consumed me.”16 She managed to escape; millions of others have not.

Because of the ubiquity of the internet, young people are increasingly isolated. In a piece for the Atlantic, Dr. Twenge found that teens no longer hang out with each other; between 2000 and 2015 the number of young people who saw their friends nearly every day fell by at least 40 percent.17 This has not made them happier; Twenge says that the Monitoring the Future survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that “all screen activities are linked to less happiness.”18

Social media’s ability to isolate is unparalleled. It creates impenetrable social circles while giving tantalizing glimpses of the circles users are excluded from. It is not surprising that girls in 2015 were nearly 50 percent more likely to report that they often felt excluded from social situations than in 2010, and boys were nearly 25 percent more likely.19 Young people arrive at college primed to feel excluded and attacked. They have learned that to survive, they must constantly be on the lookout for groups that they are not a part of and find reasons to denigrate those groups, lest they open themselves up to the ever-present anguish of feeling left out. Students who angrily denounce a birthday party featuring sombreros and tequila—a party that makes them feel excluded—are reacting to years of social media conditioning.

In real life, sometimes people say awkward things or act without thinking. There are consequences for those thoughtless decisions, of course, but the words and actions are not necessarily set in stone—or in computer code—for all time. Through real life interactions people learn to moderate their actions and to gracefully cope with others’ occasionally inappropriate behavior. But when all interactions are mediated by the internet, young people do not learn how to respond appropriately when someone makes them uncomfortable, and if they themselves say something ill-considered, it is written in the indelible ink of the internet.

The story of 30-year-old Justine Sacco, senior director of corporate communications for IAC, is illustrative of the speed with which the internet can spell doom for online mistakes. Before taking off on an eleven hour flight to Africa Sacco sent out an ill-advised tweet, and landed to find she had become the target of relentless abuse from Twitter users around the world.20 The Twitter frenzy resulted in her losing her job “in real time,” much to the delight of her tormentors. For members of Generation Z, however, the story was devoid of schadenfreude; it could at any moment become their story.

Another element of the insecure world of these college students is the rapidity with which cultural dogmas shift. Something that is acceptable today may well be damning tomorrow. The speed of these changes is only possible because of the internet. Take, for example, the rise of the term “TERFS,” or “trans-exclusionary radical feminists.” Previously, radical feminists were celebrated by progressives for their advocacy of femaleness as equal but distinct from maleness. Revered second-wave feminist Camille Paglia has said, “I believe that men exist and that women exist, and they are biologically different.”21 Today, however, with the increasing prowess of transgenderism statements like Paglia’s have become taboo. In a shocking pivot, feminists and lesbians are being banned from public discourse for asserting that having a biologically female body is essential to being a woman, as when progressive groups in Baltimore pushed Julia Beck, a radical feminist lesbian, out of her position on the Baltimore City LGBTQ commission for stating her belief that transgender women are not women.22 A few years ago, women were heroines for asserting their womanhood through their bodies—see the popularity of the play The Vagina Monologues in the 1990s. Today, they face banishment as “TERFS” and threatened with violence for holding the same belief.23 For young people trying to develop a mature sense of self, this kind of rapid-fire shifting is crippling. In the lightning-fast age of the internet, cut off from real human interactions and already struggling with severe mental health challenges, Gen Z students face real barriers to arriving on campus emotionally stable, mature, and prepared to grapple with the difficult lessons of adulthood.

Ripple Effects

College students’ emotional fragility has far-reaching consequences, including an almost child-like approach to financial responsibility, public policy, and self-reliance. Leading up to the 2016 presidential election, candidate for the Democratic nomination Bernie Sanders electrified young people with his proposals of free college and widespread student loan forgiveness. Over a million young people joined a protest march demanding these policies from the government.24 Though Sanders failed to win the nomination, 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have adopted his platform despite the obvious challenges in implementing it. In October 2019 former vice president and Democratic candidate Joe Biden unveiled a plan that includes two years of free community college and enormously reduced loan repayments for American students (which would cost taxpayers $750 billion).25 Throwing moral hazard to the wind, Democratic front-runner Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed forgiving $640 billion of student loans, though she did not indicate how much this plan would cost and how it would be funded.26

College students demand more than fiscal policy changes. In 2017 at Xavier University, a Catholic college, students organized a week-long protest demanding free condoms and birth control, despite the fact that providing these things would violate the college’s religious convictions.27 Student demands for free birth control led to a significant policy change in October 2019, when California governor Gavin Newsom signed a law requiring all thirty-four California public colleges and universities to provide abortifacient medication on demand to students.28

Beyond this, the lack of emotional resilience among today’s college students is actually altering the education they receive. In 2016, a group of Yale English students filed a petition to drop authors such as William Shakespeare from the curriculum, claiming that these writers’ whiteness unfairly disadvantaged non-white students.29 The administration succumbed, and today Yale English majors are no longer required to read Shakespeare, Chaucer, Donne, Milton, or Eliot.30

Across the board, the quality of college education seems to be deteriorating. In 2012, researchers gave a general knowledge test to 671 college students and compared the data to a similar study done in 1980.31 The test found that less than five percent of college students knew who wrote Brave New World, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or Don Giovanni; who discovered radium; or which president lived at Monticello. Dramatically fewer students could identify Paris as the capital of France than in 1980 (the question dropped from sixth most known to twenty-third), or who Cleopatra was (fifty-eight to seventy-ninth).32

This may be because students are simply not spending much time learning. The Heritage Foundation found that in 2016, the average full-time college student spent fewer than twenty hours per week on all academic-related activities—including class time.33 By comparison, in 1961 students spent an average of twenty-four hours a week just studying, not including class time.34 At the same time, since the 1990s the graduation rate for college students has gone up, suggesting that more students are graduating with much less studying.35

This raises the specter of grade inflation. Since 1983 the average GPA has risen from just over 2.8 to nearly 3.2, and the number of C and B grades has plummeted,36 so that today the single most common grade given in college is an A.37 In a study of grade inflation over the past fifty years, researchers commented that “for a variety of reasons, professors today commonly make no distinctions between mediocre and excellent student performance.”38 While no studies have been conducted that look specifically at the correlation of grade inflation and immaturity, it seems possible that one way professors are coping with more fragile students is by treating average work as excellent.

What happens on the college campus does not stay on the college campus. Whatever the reasons behind today’s students’ struggle to become mature and emotionally stable, there are already significant ripple effects throughout academia, politics, and society as a whole, and there is no indication that the situation will improve on its own.

Hope for a Mature Future?

Education can, and should, play a key role in cultivating emotional maturity. There is a clear correlation between studying literature and developing emotional resilience. In their report Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano found that reading great literature (like Dickens and Chekhov) helps people cultivate empathy, the ability to understand those who are different from them.39 Empathy is a key element of maturity, because it allows a person to consider someone else’s feelings and beliefs as well as his own. In an interview with the Guardian, Kidd said, “The same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships.”40

However, at many liberal arts universities today, students never have a chance to explore literature, history, theology, and science empathetically. It is a cruel irony that “diversity studies” have acted to eliminate differences of thought and opinion, to the point where, for all practical purposes, academia today is entirely homogeneous ideologically. A 2016 report in Academic Questions looking at voter registration rolls found that at America’s elite liberal arts colleges, there were more than ten times as many registered Democrats on the faculty in the humanities and social sciences than Republicans.41 Students in these disciplines are only encountering perspectives from one end of a very large spectrum—hardly an ideal environment for cultivating empathy.

Progressive critical theories of racism, sexism, and genderism dominate the humanities in many universities. These theories teach that the self is not a unified whole that can relate to other selves, but rather that every self is a fractured compilation of “identities”—racial, sexual, gender—each of which makes it impossible to understand a self with a different identity (recall Yale’s decision to remove Shakespeare from curricula because of his whiteness). The problem has become so rampant that even progressive outlets have warned against the divisiveness of identity theory. In 2017, education activist Lauryn Oates wrote in the Huffington Post, “The identity politics espoused by a growing faction of the left is carving up what was once a ‘we’ into fragmented fiefdoms.”42 Between those fiefdoms, whose borders are guarded by vigilant Twitter activists, no discourse is possible.

In theory, education is an excellent remedy for the isolation college students face. But in reality it serves to exacerbate the problem.

There are a handful of bright spots. Nonprofit groups have stepped up to defend basic freedoms against censorship on campus, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE has been working for two decades to raise awareness of threats to freedom of speech and thought on campuses, winning 328 defense victories on 215 separate campuses so far.43 Since its founding, FIRE reports that the percentage of American colleges and universities that routinely suppress basic freedoms of speech and association has dropped from seventy-four percent to twenty-eight percent.44 Legal organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Academic Freedom have also stepped into the fray, winning one hundred percent of cases against ordinances that restrict speech and eighty-six percent of all direct litigation against restrictive college policies.45

There are also indications of culture-wide concern about the immaturity of college students today. In 2018, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff called attention to the scale of the crisis in their book The Coddling of the American Mind, which became a New York Times bestseller. The popularity of the book indicates that people are eager for explanations—and proposed solutions—for the phenomenon unfolding on college campuses. Scholars like Jordan Peterson and Camille Paglia are taking strong stands against the culture of coddling and are attracting large numbers of young people with their bold stances on taboo topics like gender identity and gender roles.

Despite all this, the problem remains acute. Young people are struggling, first and foremost, against a catastrophic collapse of relationships. This problem can only be solved by restoring healthy relationships between individuals. It is good for groups to defend free speech and leaders to speak about maturity, but it is necessary that young people relearn how to interact with others. This can only happen through the intentional intervention of adults who go out of their way to demonstrate what maturity looks like: exhibiting empathy, listening and caring for those who disagree with them, and rejecting the fracturing influence of identity theory by understanding themselves to be whole beings with the ability to connect with other beings. Until that happens, the crisis of emotional immaturity among college students cannot be resolved.

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