The Campus Mental-Health Crisis Is Affecting Enrollment

Teaching college-age adults to deal with stress could boost registration.

A recent Gallup and Lumina Foundation survey found that 41 percent of college students have considered dropping out of school, while many other college-age adults have already dropped out or never enrolled at all. However, the study also found that 74 percent of respondents think that a college degree remains as important as it was 20 years ago. The problem is that many Americans no longer feel like it is doable.

The main reasons cited by the unenrolled for avoiding college were economic. 55 percent cited the cost of higher education, 45 percent mentioned inflation specifically, and 38 percent said that they had to keep a job and didn’t have time for higher education. The main reason cited by students who were considering dropping out, however, was “emotional stress.” 55 percent of students cited that condition, while 47 percent cited “personal mental health reasons.” For the currently unenrolled, emotional and mental issues were second only to economic issues as the cause of non-enrollment, with 30 percent citing “emotional stress” and 28 percent noting “personal mental health reasons.”

If students could be shown how to deal with stressors, we might see far fewer of them dropping out.These findings naturally raise the question of what can be done to fix the mess in which many current and prospective students find themselves. While the economic issues in question are arguably problems that society should strive to address, these are large-scale problems, unlikely to be remedied in a short amount of time. What perhaps might be done on a smaller scale and in a shorter amount of time is to teach college-age adults how to handle stress in their own lives, as individuals. Too often, young adults today are taught to avoid stress but not how to handle it. If they could be shown how to deal with stressors, then we might see far fewer students dropping out.

In The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt suggest that people struggle so much with mental-health issues these days in part because of the avoidance of stress or any other negative emotions. The authors consider how negative discussions are being taken out of classrooms and how students can now be punished for saying something that upsets somebody else. They discuss catastrophizing, in which students (or others) project onto something that has happened or will happen their utter inability to handle it. The authors state that this can be seen whenever people ask for things like trigger warnings.

So how can students be taught to deal with stress in a healthier way?

One of the solutions offered by Lukianoff and Haidt is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a way of training our minds to view the world in a more reasonable and positive way. Instead of catastrophizing and expecting the worst, we can focus our attention on what is actually likely to happen. The basic process is to learn about mental distortions, identify them when they are happening, look at the facts of any given situation, and interpret reality according to those facts.

If students could learn to do this, perhaps they could handle stress instead of avoiding it. Then, we might see fewer people dropping out of college.

Lucy Maher is a student at Thales College and a Martin Center intern.