Do parents send their kids off to college for education or maturation?
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

Do we send kids to college for education or maturation? 

I was talking with a Georgia college professor about recent suicides on his campus. He made an interesting observation: Parents once sent their children off to college for an education. Now, parents expect colleges to provide maturation. 

Yes, parents want their kids to learn calculus and finance or whatever is likely to land them a job. But they also count on colleges to turn their kids into responsible adults by bolstering their social and emotional capital and addressing any mental health problems.

Colleges have complied with this broader -- and, in many ways, much harder -- agenda and now supply a growing menu of non-academic services as enticements to students.

But are colleges capable of delivering on these promises to not only teach students some useful stuff, but also transform vulnerable and confused teens into capable and mentally healthy adults?

“Just because schools say they provide these services doesn’t mean they do it well,” noted the professor. 

The rise in youth suicide is placing greater focus on college mental health offerings. In the wake of two apparent student suicides in a week’s time, Georgia Tech is in the midst of both soul-searching about its competitive ethos and figuring out ways to prod more troubled students to seek help. 

Many parents complain the wait to see counselors on Georgia college campuses can be weeks. Even when students are seen, they can’t depend on their campus counseling centers for ongoing therapy. Most schools cap the number of visits. 

Private mental health counseling is costly; hourly rates can easily be $175 and not all insurance plans cover it. Nationwide, there is a shortage of practicing adolescent psychiatrists. In Georgia the shortage has reached the severe level, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (If you go to this site and look at the county-by-county tally, you will see the vast majority of Georgia counties have no child and adolescent psychiatrists.)

A survey of nearly 14,000 first-year college students from eight nations, including the United States, found a third of the students reported a history of mental disorders. 

“While timely and effective treatment is important, the number of students in need of treatment for these disorders far exceeds the resources of most counseling centers, resulting in substantial unmet need for treatment of mental disorders among college students,” warned the recently released American Psychological Association research report. These mental health issues did not begin when the students arrived at college; the average age reported by students was 14.

It's unclear why today’s teens suffer more with anxiety and depression and have fewer coping skills. Theories include overinvolved parents who never let their children solve their own problems or control their own schedules, so the kids are ill equipped to deal with the challenges of college. The unrelenting and often unkind social media scene may play a role; students can be affected by the curated personas their friends present on Instagram and Snapchat and judge their own lives empty.

Whatever the cause, students are bringing mental health struggles with them to campus, where those struggles can intensify.

Are colleges able to handle them? Should we expect them to do so?

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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