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Economy Exacerbates College Students' Stress


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. In the coming weeks, millions of college students will move into dorm rooms, make new friends and hit the books. And if that sounds pretty much like the experience of their predecessors over the years, some things have changed.

In this economy, the pressure to succeed can be overwhelming. Students worry about choosing the right major to land a job. Add the mounting cost of college, living expenses and another factor: College deans report the biggest change over the past decade is parental involvement on campus, and their expectations can add pressure, too.

If you're in college, how is it different than you thought? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we want to hear from athletes, whether you set a world record at the Olympic Games or a personal best on the elliptical down at the gym, how did you surpass your limits? Email us: talk@npr.org.

But first, Arthur Levine joins us from a studio in Atlanta. He's president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and president emeritus of Teacher's College at Columbia University.

And it's nice to have you with us today.

ARTHUR LEVINE: It's nice to be with you.

CONAN: And that note about college deans and parents is among the findings of a survey conducted for a new book you co-wrote with Diane Dean called "Generation on a Tightrope." I think it's safe to say there's always been pressure to succeed. What's different now?

LEVINE: The economy really is a big deal. This is a generation that's graduating college with two-thirds owing more than $31,000. What's also true is they're in a world in which they're working more. They're taking fewer courses. They're stopping out for periods of time because they can't afford to stay in. They're working longer hours, and they're choosing majors in career areas they don't necessarily want.

CONAN: Being more pragmatic, if you will.

LEVINE: Much more pragmatic than the students who came before them.

CONAN: And as they make those choices, it's interesting to me, one of the findings was that over 40 percent of students get A-minus or better on their average grade - their grade-point scores, but they also feel underappreciated. They're worth more than that.

LEVINE: It's all true. The numbers are extraordinary. So 40 percent, as you said, get As. In 1969, that number was 5 percent. Today, about 9 percent get grades of less than C, and in 1969 it was 25 percent. So grades have really shot up. However, 45 percent of these kids are taking remedial courses, and 60 percent, three out of five, think their grades understate their intellectual abilities.

And the reasons for it are, in part, that this is a generation that was brought up never having skinned their knees. Their parents have been very protective, and a lot of kids have won awards. They've all won awards, is the way deans of students described it. They said: You may have won an award for the best trombone player born on April 5th. But they've all won awards.

CONAN: And that...

LEVINE: So they expect applause for the things they're doing, and grades below A-minus don't count for applause.

CONAN: And that parental involvement, perhaps interference from time to time, that is also continuing.

LEVINE: That's amazing. When we asked deans of students what the biggest change they experienced was in the last decade, the answer, overwhelmingly, was parent involvement. And we're having now is kids calling their parents - 40 percent call their parents at least once a day, or text or email. One out of five calls at least three times in a day.

And what's happening is parents are also much more involved in college life, so that for more than a quarter, the parents have intervened with a professor or an employer. And for one out of five, they've intervened with a roommate. So these parents are much, much, much more involved than the parents in the past.

CONAN: We're talking with Arthur Levine about "Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Student." That's the name of his new book. But we're also talking about the pressures that so many students face these days, the pressures to succeed, and how all those pressures can change college from what they expected.

If that's your case, if you're a student, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Sam, Sam on the line with us from San Antonio.

SAM: Yes, hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

SAM: I just wanted to mention that San Antonio - south and east of San Antonio currently has a large job boom due to a large oil shale play, and that has actually caused me to change my major. I'm currently - I was currently - currently, not currently a civil engineering major studying at a community college, but I've decided to switch to engineering technology simply because there is more job opportunities in the area right now for semi-skilled labor than there is prospects for entry-level engineers.

And from - my fiancee's in a similar position, and most places around, especially in San Antonio and South Texas, are looking for people who already have several years of experience, and no entry-level jobs, or at least very few are willing to train.

CONAN: And so how are you going to get that job?

SAM: Job fairs, job fairs and hope. There's a lot of people coming from all around the country, as well. It's been very heavily publicized that we have - they're saying approximately 30 to 40 years worth of oil shale in the area. And it - really, it's just getting my name out there as much as I possibly can and hoping for the best.

CONAN: And what would you have done as a civil engineer?

SAM: I would have hoped to have gone into infrastructure, but be - especially from transferring from the community college level to the four-year college level, if you don't have a 3.5 or above GPA, there's no way that you're going to get in any school that's of note.

CONAN: And how difficult is it to get that kind of GPA?

LEVINE: It is difficult, especially on the engineering track. I unfortunately moved down to Texas in between my - in the middle of my high school career from Wisconsin, and I believe the high school system specifically really didn't expect much from me, at least in the math area, while college expected a lot more that I felt that they prepared me for.

CONAN: Well, we wish you the best of luck, Sam.

SAM: All right, thank you very much.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And it's interesting, Arthur Levine, that expectation that you're going to have to do a lot in college academically, and there may be grade inflation, but it's still hard.

LEVINE: You bet, particularly in the sciences. Sam's experience is fairly typical today. We were amazed. We found that 23 percent of students were majoring in business, and only 7 percent wanted to. We found that 16 percent were in medicine or health, and only 6 percent wanted to be. We found that six percent of students were in the arts, but 11 percent wanted to be.

Students are choosing the areas in which there are jobs, whether they want to be in those areas or not. And maybe more important is that there are things students can do to make themselves more employable. Two of them are internships. Before you ever hit the job market, get some experience as an intern. They may have to do it without salary, but it's worth it in the long run.

And in the senior year of college, produce a project, something you can show an employer of what you're capable of doing. And take a real practical minor. If you're a liberal arts student, put together some courses, put together arts and management if you're an art major, and that gives you an arts management background or knowledge in the field.

If you're in art, again, combine it with science courses, and you become an art illustrator. There are lots of ways to peel this onion.

CONAN: Let's go next to Michael, and Michael's with us from Cincinnati.

MICHAEL: Hi, Neal. Hi, Arthur. Thank you for taking my call.


CONAN: Sure.

MICHAEL: I actually - I just graduated, so I fall a bit out of your demographic. But I saw that when I was in college, and I felt that a lot of my professors and a lot of my courses are actually what I would deem kind of useless in that, for an undergraduate degree, I found it very - a lot of professors seemed to be talking about subjects in my field, which is political science, that didn't really have any practical application. And at the same time, they didn't feel meaningful when I studied them.

And I feel that a lot of students, they're kind of stuck between this need for practicality on the one hand, but also taking courses that teach you to think, which I think should be the point of an undergraduate education. And I feel that kind of the university structure doesn't give students that opportunity hardly at all.

CONAN: It's interesting, you say teaching you to think, critical thinking. In the survey that Professor Levine did, they found that, in fact, two-thirds of students thought the principal purpose of college was to enable you to earn more money once you graduate.

MICHAEL: Right. And I think that's also a response that's shaped by, you know, kind of like my graduating cohort and the past couple years and the years down the line need to deal with kind of the economic situation. But it's really one of the only times in your life, I feel, as an undergraduate student, where you'll be able to sit and just have conversations about almost anything.

And I know that with the advice you just gave on-air about kind of if you're an art student having like a management course or producing a senior thesis project to show, that you have something tangible that you can do, is extremely good advice. But at the same time, I feel students need to be interested in what they're learning to actually do that project or apply those skills in the first place.

CONAN: And briefly, Michael, did you land that job after college, or are you going on for another degree?

MICHAEL: So right now I am at my parents' house, kind of recuperating and figuring out the next steps. But I hope to travel abroad in a few months, actually.

CONAN: Oh, so take some time to have some bull sessions in other languages.

MICHAEL: Right. And I've studied political theory, so, like, any practicality is already out the door. So traveling might be the best thing.


CONAN: Good luck to you, Michael, thanks very much for the call.

MICHAEL: Thank you for taking me.

CONAN: Here's - we're talking about the changing pressures that face college students these days. In a few minutes, we'll hear about a unique idea to help students handle all that pressure. If you are in college, how is it different than you thought? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. A record number of students are expected to attend U.S. colleges and universities this fall, more than 21 million. That's an increase of about six million students since 2000, and many of them will face added pressures, from a tough economy and job market, from very involved parents and, of course, classes themselves.

If you're in college, how is it different than you thought? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Arthur Levine. He serves as president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and is co-author with Diane Dean of "Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Student." And let's get another one of them on the line. Devon's with us from Birmingham.

DEVON: Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Devon. Go ahead, please.

DEVON: Hey, how are you doing? Basically, I'm a first-time student, 25 years old. So I'm not like the freshmen in terms of being 18 and under. I kind of just was - whenever I came into it, I don't know, like I was - it definitely was not meeting my expectations in a way, mostly in terms of - just in terms of I'm going for a BFA degree, a bachelor of fine arts.

And the first thing I noticed was just in terms of how many hours you have to take to get a BFA is, of course, you know, it's obscenely large. I unfortunately don't have my parents, you know, providing for me in any way, shape or form.

So I'm mostly going to - I'm working fulltime and trying to juggle getting an art degree, which, of course, it's really frustrating because it's like, you know, trying to juggle these studio classes that are straight-up three-and-a-half-hours long and worth the same amount of credits that, you know, like a one-and-a-half-hour class is for all business students, or such and such, and then finding myself, you know, struggling to be able to either make the class on time because of either I'm working overtime or having to be late to work because I'm in class.

You know, on top of that, doing projects for art - which, of course, is a lot longer than, you know, just writing an essay. So it's just, like, I don't know. I was, I guess, expecting a little bit more foundation for those of us that don't have a lot of things that are being provided for us by our parents and things like that, because the loans - as huge as they are, because they are huge - they're still not nearly enough to survive off of, and they're still not nearly enough to cover everything that they've got to cover.

CONAN: And so your expectations were that you'd get some more support from the college, at least in terms of practicality.

DEVON: Well yeah, in terms of, like, you know, I'm working, like, a $7.50, you know, job. Like, I'm not making a lot of money. I have to work a severe amount of hours just to be able to survive. And, like, you know, I'm not getting any grants at all. There's no grants being provided, even though I'm sure I qualify for them and I've applied for them.

And the loans themselves just aren't helping. So for us art students who, you know, have those courses that require just so much time and so much extra time compared to, like, writing an essay or something like that, you know, it's just a situation where, you know, you have to - I don't know. It just gets very, very overwhelming very quick.

CONAN: I will defend essayists and point out that a good one takes some time to work out, too, but I get your point. And we wish you the best of luck.

DEVON: Thank you.

CONAN: And it is a complaint that you also found, Arthur Levine, in your finding that the students report not getting support from - the kind of support he was talking about, not merely financial support, from their institutions.

LEVINE: Actually, students are more satisfied with college now than they've been any time in the last 30 years, which is kind of a surprise. But Devon's experience is the experience students are having. It's not only older students. It's younger students who are having to work more than they've ever worked before and are finding that it's just harder.

It's harder to do the work the college requires because they're so busy on jobs. It's harder to take as many classes. So it's harder to graduate. It's an incredible stressor. And still, they're taking out enormous loans. How do you get through this and end up with sound mental health?

CONAN: Well...

LEVINE: And by the way, that's another issue.

CONAN: And we wanted to introduce a new guest who runs a program designed to relieve some of that stress. Joining us now from her office at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is Kim Charniak. She's a clinical social worker and runs a program to help students deal with stress and pressure. Nice to have you with us today.

KIM CHARNIAK: Thank you.

CONAN: And you conduct an animal-assisted therapy program. What's involved in that?

CHARNIAK: Well, we have one dog right now. His name is Sherman. He's a boxer. And he's trained to work with students that are experiencing anxiety or depression, academic issues, trauma and those kinds of things. And then they see him with a trained therapist, myself, and work in that way.

But we also have outreach programs where we can work with many students at a time in classroom settings or in their residence halls, working on kind of stress management.

CONAN: What is a session like with a therapist and a dog?

CHARNIAK: It kind of depends on what the goal for that client is. Each client meets with me and Sherman first, and we set up goals related to animal-assisted therapy. So if it's, you know, communications styles that are getting in their way, or that the anxiety is really high and making it hard to make decisions and move through a day, those kinds of things, then we make goals for that.

If somebody's having a trauma reaction, and they just need a kind of supportive figure to kind of support them while they talk about that trauma, then Sherman will just simply lay his head on their lap and sit with them and be with them emotionally to support them while they talk.

If it's something where somebody's really feeling really stressed out, and they're having a hard time even just taking deep breaths and thinking through the problem and making a sound plan about what they want to do next, we'll work through those kind of experiential things with the dog and help them kind of focus in one thing at a time.

CONAN: How did you - I'm not sure how this program originated, but let me ask: How did you convince the university that they needed a therapy dog?

CHARNIAK: Well, it kind of came - but like a lot of good ideas come, by accident. We had this beautiful dog that I got as a rescued animal that was kind of supporting an older dog in my home. And while we were training him, everybody - the trainers kept saying he really has a personality to be a therapy dog.

So I started looking into it and looking into the research and what that means and what kind of training they would need and what kind of help they can provide. And once I looked through that, then I talked to my boss, Joe Abhold, and he said get it all together, you know, make a statement about what you want and how that could be helpful for our students and our community on campus.

So that's what we did. We really looked deeply into the research, and then presented that to the chancellor and then started writing procedures and what we wanted it to look like. And then that's how it kind of got rolling.

CONAN: And people are signing up to attend these sessions?

CHARNIAK: Yeah. It's really highly - the students are really highly motivated to come in. They actually come in and talk to a therapist here, and then they talk and decide whether or not it would be a good idea for them to see Sherman and myself. And if it fits in with the scope of what Sherman can do, then we go ahead and start making goals and do that.

But students here can be benefitted from Sherman and the activities whether or not they're a client because he goes to classrooms, and he goes to residence halls and floors. And we talk about stress management. He's done several groups for grief for students. So there's a lot of ways that students here are touched by having a dog on campus.

CONAN: Kim Charniak, thanks very much, and we wish our - give our best to Sherman.

CHARNIAK: Thank you.

CONAN: Kim Charniak, a clinical social worker at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, who conducts the Animal-assisted Therapy Program. She joined us from her office there. And Arthur Levine, well, that's one way to help relieve stress. There are other ways that colleges could help their students.

LEVINE: There are a lot of ways that colleges could help their students. Actually, psychological counseling services are doing a booming business. The numbers of students who are using them is really growing sky-high. The number of students who are coming to college on prescription drugs for anxiety and other kinds of conditions is also shooting up. So students are coming with more serious problems and taking more counseling.

CONAN: And self-medicating, too.

LEVINE: Yes, self-medicating. Drugs and alcohol have always been primary means by which college students: A, self-medicate, and B, entertain themselves.

CONAN: Let's go next to David. David's with us from Chelsea, Michigan.

DAVID: Hi, there.


DAVID: Yes. I would just like to talk about how I was going through a community college for an associate's degree in arts. And I intend to go to a four-year school for linguistics. And something I've kind of realized along the way is that we have to create our own future and kind of augment our resume through our strengths by supplementing things outside of school. Like, I've studied linguistics and languages outside of school, and I think it's really important for degrees outside of fields like engineering and medical degrees to give yourself a leg up against the competition because it's extremely competitive right now. And I'll take my call off the air.

CONAN: Well, I just wanted to ask what field do you hope to get a job in after you graduate.

DAVID: Oh, linguistics and interpreting. I'm thinking translating comics or something like that.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

DAVID: All right. Thank you very much.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. And I think that's sort of acceptance of self-responsibility. Well, I'm not reading a lot of that in your survey results.

LEVINE: No. That was one of the - I guess one of the biggest surprises is that because this generation is so sheltered, they haven't had to deal with adversity very much or at all. So when they encounter the failures we all encounter throughout life, they don't know what to do about it. They are so heavily dependent upon adults that they actively seek their approval and they want to know what the rules are. Tell me what the rules are because I don't want to violate them.

CONAN: Let's go next to Paul, Paul with us from Pensacola.

PAUL: Yes, hi.


PAUL: So, I am a active duty military in the U.S. Navy doing an enlisted officer program, and I only have three years to complete my college degree. So for me, the college experience has very much been a front-loading, heavily instead of taking the traditional 12 to 15 credits, doing 18 to 20 a semester (siren going off) to complete on time. And I was just listening to the program here and talk about students who are incapable of handling sort of the adult life, how - that one day when they run into these stressful situations, taking 12 or 15 credit hours and they just completely shut down.

And then they turn against the curriculum of the professor, the syllabus. And it always got me just sitting in class listening to them complain about the workload assigned. And then usually the professors, I've noticed a lot of them would cave to the pressure of the students because they would just sort of build into a mob mentality in a class of complaints over the workload.

CONAN: And, of course, your workload is a lot higher.

PAUL: Yeah. And just - I mean I don't know if that had to do with, like, my military background being used to the higher workload, but students today, I (unintelligible) a lot of the younger people, they have a lot more opportunity growing up and a lot more - but I - personally, I think the financial resources available to them are fairly decent. It's just their work ethic, I think, that for the current on pressure on sophomores that I deal with is a lot lower than what I would use to dealing with in my own job experience in the Navy.

CONAN: So, in a sense, your expectation was it was going to be harder.

PAUL: Yes. I though it would be a lot harder. I mean, I was always a good student in high school. You know, worked hard, do the extra, go the extra mile. But I found a lot of students that I dealt with, their expectation was that, I'm paying - and a lot of their biggest complaints is how much it cost for them to go there and the fact that they're having - the biggest complaint was like, why is this - why are we doing this? Why are we doing so much work for this? Why is this so much harder than - I just think they were very spoon-fed growing up, I got the feeling, and then when they got to college and were expected to put out the effort, they just couldn't do it.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the call and for the perspective.

PAUL: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about what different in college from what expectations were. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this is email from Dulce in Tracy, California: My first day in college was yesterday. In high school the teachers cared about you and told you to please, please pay attention. In college, you must find yourself and pay attention. In college, you must find your self-control, determination and go for the gold. May I remind you education was free? I spent an hour in the bookstore yesterday to pay for my $40 book. Forty bucks? That's gas from my home in Tracy to my college, which is Las Positas in Livermore, California. Oh, yeah. And if you want to make friends, you have to put in an effort.

His email from Lucas: As an employer, I feel that this advice about seeking some practicality in your undergraduate education is sort of terrible. I don't expect any undergraduate to come away from college with facts and specific knowledge to advance their career. There really isn't enough time for that as an undergraduate anyway. I do look for in job candidates a general critical mindset, a worldliness and an interest to the world and in ideas. And those things are really only gotten in a liberal general education, not in a pragmatic one. An emphasis on pragmatic education will only create a glut of goal-minded yet small-minded perspective employees. And, Arthur Levine, that's not the perspective that a lot of students seem to have.

LEVINE: No. However, it's really not a choice. You don't have to do A or B. Students ought to leave college with both. They ought to have the skills to show an employer many or less understanding than the man who wrote in. They really do want vocational skills. But, on the other hand, students need to leave - given they're going to live in a world of dramatic change - with creativity, critical thinking, continuous learning because whatever they know, it's going to have a really short half-life and they're going to have to learn throughout their lives.

CONAN: One final email question from Michelle in Ann Arbor: As a student at the University of Chicago, I always assumed doing well at such a prestigious college would more or less guarantee me a job. Once I got there it seemed much more important that my schoolwork was the endless search for internships and other opportunities. Could you comment on the balance between school work and the extra career experience we're all supposed to take on?

LEVINE: What's happening - today's college students aren't the way most people imagine them. We think of them as being 18 to 22, in college full-time and living in a dormitory. That constitutes 18 percent of all college students. The rest are much more like Paul and David and Devin who called earlier. They're older students. They're attending part-time. And they're working really, really hard. I think it's a mistake to think that college has always been about getting an education. It's only become practical recently. The fact of the matter is the reason people went to medieval universities, where they taught Hebrew, Syriac and other kinds of subjects, was because it led to jobs.

CONAN: Hmm. Arthur Levine, thanks very much for your time today.

LEVINE: It's a pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: The book is "Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Student." Coming up, we hear that athletes are approaching the limits of human potential, so why did we see dozens of new world records at the London Games? Well, stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.