Skip to content
Why students are more anxious, alienated than ever


“Creating a community of belonging” was the main promise of a small upstate college we visited this spring. With just weeks to go before the May 1 “decision day” deadline, the administrators were delivering their final speech to a room full of prospective freshmen and their parents.

“Belonging means being at home,” said one student in a three-minute video that opened the presentation.

“Being a family,” said another. “Where we all accept each other.”

“It’s new,” I whispered to my husband.

After 10 years of college research with our three older children, we thought we had the college messages in mind. Countless campus tours, college fairs, and stacks of nifty brochures that filled our mailboxes for months touted the principle that college is where ambitious Americans prepare for success.

“Ignite the change,” urged Villanova University in 2014. “Become essential,” urged Rhodes College. Vanderbilt students “held themselves to higher standards” at the time.

But this year, as our youngest son gathered his own little forest’s worth of college literature, we noticed a change.

Author Mary Kay Linge (in red) and her family celebrate her son Peter’s 2019 graduation from Loyola University in New Orleans.
Jean Linen

“You belong here,” Johnson & Wales University assured him of the cover of a letter highlighting on-campus counseling services and therapy dogs. Baylor University stimulated the “#BaylorFamily”. Tulane claimed the happiest students in the country. “We are collaborative. . . Founded. . . Support,” appeased Washington University in St. Louis (never mind its super-competitive 13% acceptance rate).

In the wake of the biggest drop in enrollment in 50 years — a steep 6.5% drop during the coronavirus pandemic — colleges are frantically courting kids on campus and desperate to keep them happy once they arrive.

Even before COVID-19 forced millions of students into dismal virtual classrooms, two Harvard researchers found that high school education had become an increasingly miserable experience for many.

Why students are more anxious, alienated than ever
A recent study found a 50% increase in mental health issues among college students between 2013 and 2021.
Shutterstock

For “The Real World of College” (MIT Press), now available, Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner interviewed 2,000 students, staff, faculty, and parents at 10 liberal arts schools. They were shocked to find that 31% of students on all campus types — from exclusive universities like Duke to Queens College at CUNY and Borough of Manhattan Community College — felt alienated and anxious.

Their findings were consistent with a new study that found a 50% increase in mental health issues among college students between 2013 and 2021.

Students who don’t feel like they belong on their campus are less likely to graduate and more likely to transfer after their freshman year, according to several studies. The percentage of those who return to second grade, known as a school’s retention rate, is a key metric for US News & World Report and other college rankings.

Why students are more anxious, alienated than ever

Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI offers a particularly robust range of on-campus wellness services, including dedicated counseling sessions and therapy dogs.


Why students are more anxious, alienated than ever

In their effort to meet students’ need for connection, Baylor University in Waco, TX, launched the “#BaylorFamily” hashtag.


Why students are more anxious, alienated than ever

Tulane University in New Orleans is synonymous with happiness – so much so that it claims to have the “happiest students” in the country.


Why students are more anxious, alienated than ever

While it can be very competitive, Washington University in St. Louis always insists that it is “collaborative…grounded…(and) supportive.”


So, as a result, cuddly therapy dogs, mid-term goat yoga sessions, campus wellness centers, and “family” branding took precedence.

Yet none of these band-aids address the real problem: a mad internal perfectionism among students, fueled by a mania for acceptance. “The behaviors that brought you to this place. . . will kill you,” an English teacher told the researchers.

“I was so obsessed with where I could be accepted that I never stopped asking myself: why? Why am I going to college? said Katie Abramowitz, research assistant on the Fischman and Gardner survey project.

Why students are more anxious, alienated than ever
In their quest to keep students happy, universities are even bringing therapy animals to campus.
Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Blame it on us parents, our pressure cooker high schools, on the colleges themselves for the exorbitant prices that make us demand visible results – a great career, a place in high school – for the Tesla level expenses necessary to get this degree.

Whatever the cause, young people have internalized the idea that frantic resume writing is the end, not the means. Students who view college in purely transactional terms, Fischman and Gardner found, are much more likely to experience alienation and the stress that drives them to drop out.

Why students are more anxious, alienated than ever
Even before COVID-19 forced millions of students into dismal virtual classrooms, two Harvard researchers found that high school education had become an increasingly miserable experience for many.

When our son chose to take up the offer of “home community” (which he asked me not to name), we celebrated – and sat him down for a chat. Don’t just tick the boxes to complete your major, we told him; don’t fill your schedule with easy aces. This is your unique chance to stretch and grow, take intellectual risks, develop deep learning skills, become a better thinker, neighbor, parent and citizen.

That’s the goal and promise of a liberal arts education, after all — and four years from now, that’s what we hope our son will have.

Mary Kay Linge is a mother of four from Staten Island — three college graduates and a soon-to-be college freshman — and a reporter for the New York Post.


GB2