“Burned-Out” Students Have Been Lied To

Life is hard. Life in college shouldn’t be an exception.

One fact of life that everyone in human society has known over the millennia: Life is hard. Yet, in recent years, particularly post-Covid, American society has developed the notion that life is supposed to be easy and that people deserve success—that when life is hard, someone must pay or apologize in some way. Colleges seem in many ways to be leading this charge, by forming students who are often unaware that a difficult life is not the fault of any one person or entity but remains the default human condition, whatever improvements civilizations make.

According to a new survey from the career-building platform Handshake, over 80 percent of college seniors have experienced some form of burnout during their college careers. For 29 percent of respondents, burnout was frequent. The majority of respondents also reported that they are concerned about burnout once they enter their future professions. Speaking about the survey’s results, Handshake’s chief strategy officer, Christine Cruzvergara, brought up the pandemic. What tends to be less acknowledged, however, is that everyone went through the pandemic, not just college students. Do only college students experience its fallout? I think not.

The world is never going to pay six figures to hundreds of thousands of basket weavers. Another Handshake finding is that 69 percent of respondents expect that their student debt will impact which jobs they consider after getting their diplomas. Cruzvergara recently told Higher Ed Dive that “students might forgo careers in lower paying industries because they feel pressured to earn enough to cover their loan payments, plus the cost of living.”

While this is presented as bad news, it is actually a good thing! Future grads must live in the same world we all do, and students should consider things like debt and their future estimated salaries before choosing a major. The world is never going to pay six figures to hundreds of thousands of basket weavers. To expect this is arrogant. Students need to identify their marketable strengths and use college to work toward the end goal of employment. And colleges should work to give students the best skills at the lowest price. Reality should intrude into these calculations.

Life is a struggle. Without struggle, there can be no meaning. Unfortunately, students have been told by parents, professors, university leaders, and society at large to expect no troubles at all, and it has produced disastrous results. It is time we tell students the truth: Managing a busy and difficult life is essential, and burnout will happen when one fails at this task, but that is okay. Humans live and learn. As long as you pick yourself up and dust yourself off, life can—and will—get better.

Grace Hall is a communications assistant at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. She works and lives in Georgia.