No longer are the nation’s college campuses places where only the fittest survive, the place where only one of your classmates to the right or the left will make it to graduation. Colleges instead are practicing a new version of “in loco parentis” — they are expected to be stand-in parents — and it begins as soon as students step foot on campus.
At many colleges, new students already have been introduced to their roommates on social media and live in luxurious apartment-like dorms. That ensures they basically never have to share a room or a bathroom, or even eat in the dining halls if they don’t want to. Those were the places where previous generations learned to get along with different people and manage conflicts when they were chosen at random to live with strangers in close and communal quarters.
When students on some campuses go to register for classes or pick a major, their entire four years has been planned out for them courtesy of technology. A handful of big public universities, including Georgia State, Virginia Commonwealth, and Arizona State (where I’m a professor of practice), have adopted computerized advising systems that track students’ progress in classes and mine data on tens of thousands of grades to make suggestions about what courses should come next for them.
The advising systems all work in slightly different ways, but the theory behind them is the same one that drives the invisible array of algorithms that recommend music on Spotify and movies on Netflix. Colleges know that if you don’t do well in statistics your freshman year you’re not likely to finish a degree in economics.
At universities with massive course catalogs, the ultimate goal of these computerized advising systems — to keep students enrolled and graduate them on time — is certainly admirable, even necessary. But they take away the ability of students to manage the ambiguity that will mark their daily lives in a few years. Students might make it to commencement, but they will more than likely struggle later when they work in an environment not designed and managed via a bunch of algorithms.
A dean once told me that students used to come ask for help in solving a problem they had; now they just want the answer to the problem. Even President Obama asked recently if college students are too coddled.
The protective attitude of colleges also extends into the classroom. Professors are encouraged to provide “trigger warnings,” advance notices to students that instructional material might elicit a troubling emotional response from them, and on some campuses report “microaggressions.”
Indeed, the college classroom reinforces the message that failure is unacceptable. Students are never exposed, for instance, to the feedback process that is the hallmark of most jobs today. Think about it: employees don’t work on a project in isolation for months and then turn it into their boss at the end for feedback. There is a back-and-forth with small wins, and many failures, along the way. Even great writers discard several drafts.
Yet in the college classroom, the sole focus of students is on the final product, whether an exam or a final paper, all done in an effort to earn an A. And that’s exactly what many students end up getting. The A is the most common grade given out on college campuses nationwide, accounting for 43 percent of all grades. (In 1988, the A represented less than one-third of all grades.)
No wonder students are paralyzed by the prospect of failure. Most of them have never experienced it. Parents are surely to blame for a big part of that, but so too are colleges where young adults spend most of their waking hours.