Why Don't College Students Follow COVID-19 Guidelines?

College students do what college students do.

Posted Aug 22, 2020

Recently, many have wondered why college students have not followed strict guidelines to prevent COVID-19 infections as they came to campus for the first time as freshmen or returned as upperclassmen.

The simple answer: College students do what college students do. They hang out together, they form close emotional and physical bonds with one another, they party, drink, and, of course, may hook up with one another.

College students are of an age called late adolescence or entering what is called Emerging Adulthood. In fact, Shakespeare noted long ago that, “I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.”

Certainly, the activities resulting in COVID-19 infections fit Shakespeare’s description of college students. They often exude passion, which may become unbridled.

Why are adolescents and emerging adults like that? On one hand, there is an imbalance in the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain (the center of cognitive control and judgment) in contrast with the development of the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain), particularly the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until the 20s, in contrast to the earlier development of the emotional areas of the brain. This imbalance leads to a lack of cognitive control over intense emotional desires.

Early in adolescence and through emerging adult development, there is an increased awareness of sexual desires, as well as a shift in primary focus from families to peers and non-family adults. For these reasons, the adolescent can act impulsively, at times in ways that are maladaptive — particularly when in the company of peers, and particularly when alcohol impairs their judgment. Understandably, their actions can cause great consternation in parents and among the substitute parents in college settings.

During the greater part of the 20th century, colleges used to see themselves in loco parentis, in place of the parents. Their assumption of this role was often considered to be a restrictive force to control emerging adults, but it also developed as a way to care for young people away from home for the first time. After the student rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s, colleges gradually relinquished a parental role.

We certainly cannot return to that long-gone era, but we need to repeatedly communicate the necessity of caution to the adults of our next generation.


Hoffman, L. (2020). Clinical Aspects of Adolescent Issues Contributions from Neuro-Psychoanalysis. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 1-13.