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David Leibow M.D.
David Leibow M.D.

The Number One Cause of College Unhappiness

And what to do about it.

During the next couple of weeks, 20 million students will head off to college. The majority of them will make it through those four or five years without serious problems. They'll succeed academically, make lifelong friends and have plenty of fun. A sizable minority, however, won't be so lucky.

Based on a 2009 survey conducted by the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA II), 39 percent of college students will feel hopeless during the school year, 25 percent will feel so depressed they'll find it hard to function, 47 percent will experience overwhelming anxiety, and 84 percent will feel overwhelmed by all they have to do.

This is not what these hopeful young people were led to expect. Most of them left for college believing it would be the best time of their lives—a privileged hiatus between the strictures of adolescence and responsibilities of adulthood. So why the distress?

The answer is academic floundering. It's the number-one cause of college unhappiness. When asked whether any experience in the past year had been traumatic or very difficult to handle, 44.2 percent of the students surveyed by the ACHA-NCHA II named academics. That number is 10 percent higher than any other stressor, including problems with finances or intimate relationships.

College students want to succeed. They want to fulfill their own ambitions and make their parents proud. If their grades are low, and especially if they're forced to delay graduation or drop out, they feel demoralized and ashamed. Plans for further education are scrapped; career aspirations are abandoned; life trajectories are thrown off course.

The biggest reason students flounder academically is that they're unprepared. Students from weak high schools have studied curricula that aren't rigorous enough. Students from strong high schools have studied curricula that, if anything, are too rigorous. Students from weak schools graduate lacking basic skills. Students from strong schools graduate dependent on parents or tutors to help them handle their impossible workloads.

One thing both groups have in common: no one has taught them how to study. Weak high schools are stretched too thin to provide this instruction. Strong high schools don't feel it's necessary.

Highly competitive prep schools might even be more culpable in this respect. They tend to overload their students with content and neglect the process by which that content can be mastered. They leave it up to the students themselves to figure out how to actually do the work.

Although many students eventually figure out how to do their work, many don't, and many just learn to fake it—a problem that becomes apparent only when they arrive in college and the structure provided by their high-powered parents and schools disappears.

Students who haven't learned how to learn are too embarrassed to ask for help. They assume—wrongly—either that they're the only ones harboring this deficiency or that they ought to be smart enough to overcome it on their own. And because their inefficient studying is aversive, they do as little of it as they can get away with, or less.

Making up for an inadequate high school curriculum is difficult. Yet most colleges make the attempt. They offer remedial courses in basic skills, such as reading, even though the results are decidedly mixed. Teaching college students how to study is a lot less difficult than trying to reteach high school. And it's much more likely to produce results. When students know how to study, they're more likely to study.

Since few colleges are currently offering this instruction, there's room for innovation. To be successful, however, one stubborn facet of human nature cannot be ignored. I speak here of pride—the bravado of students, the ambition of faculty, and the grandiosity of institutions of higher learning.

If pride isn't taken into account, some college students, some faculty and even some universities will view themselves as above taking, teaching, or offering these courses. They'll carry on letting students learn by trial and error. And they'll continue to be dismayed when good students do bad work, or give up altogether. Courses on how to study have to be mandatory for all college students no matter what kind of high school they come from.

The best way to legitimize college courses on how to study is to make them as intellectually rigorous and pedagogically sound as any other course. When students study chemistry, foreign languages, or music composition they have a didactic component, where they learn theory, and they have a lab, where they get to put what they've learned into practice. Courses on how to study should emphasize the lab.

Providing college students with the tools to succeed academically benefits everyone. Students learn more and feel less overwhelmed. Professors enjoy teaching students who are motivated and competent. Colleges have higher graduation rates. Parents have happier children. And the rest of us have better educated and more disciplined graduates entering the workforce.

And for those 20 million young people now settling into their dorms, college might yet be the best time of their lives (or one of them, at least).

About the Author
David Leibow M.D.

David Leibow, M.D., is on the psychiatric faculty of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the author of What to Do When College is Not the Best Time of Your Life..