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College Life in an Era of Disconnection and Excess

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Whoever thought that Animal House would seem quaint and innocent? Toga parties, beer kegs, food fights— the 1978 film’s depiction of life on campus is a far cry from what college students face in the new millennium. As colleges across the country say goodbye to the Class of 2010, they prepare to greet a new group of freshman in the fall. The Class of 2014 will enter a world where binge drinking, date rape, dating violence, suicide and even shootings can turn what should be a bucolic, nurturing environment into a potential danger zone.

Barrett Seaman spent two years living on 12 college campuses, seeking a firsthand look into how the college experience had changed since his student days as an undergraduate at Hamilton College in the late 1960s. The changes are, in a word, dramatic. He details what he found in his book, Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess. Seaman recently spoke at a breakfast event to benefit NYC-Parents in Action, a group that provides New York parents with information and connections that help them guide their children in challenging and changing times. No surprise that the parents there listened intently to his remarks.

A correspondent and editor at Time magazine for 30 years, Seaman studied competitive colleges all over the U.S., including Harvard, Berkeley, Duke, Hamilton, Middlebury, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Virginia. First, the good news. Seaman found positive changes that are familiar to any parent who has toured campuses in the past decade. Technology, including smart boards, laptops and video-conferencing, has created efficiencies in the sharing of information and education. Colleges have invested in high quality facilities—television studios for communications programs, advanced laboratories for robotics, and athletic facilities. The expanded course offerings may include genetics, biotechnology, and holistic health studies. The food on college campuses is generally much healthier than in earlier decades. Colleges have worked hard to increase diversity, and many work with students to build community awareness, some even having a community service requirement.

Those positive changes, however, have resulted in many negative developments. All that cutting edge technology has created social fragmentation. Many students feel isolated and disconnected as the Internet has emerged as the primary vehicle for social interaction, over face-to-face encounters. While colleges have doubled the enrollment of minority students, diversity does not guarantee an inclusive community if minorities are supported with separate services. This is true not only for ethnic minority students, but also for groups like recruited athletes, who can be on a separate academic track and bound by rigorous schedules.

Then there’s all that binge drinking. Seaman produced a startling statistic. At Hamilton College in the 1960s only one student in four years was hospitalized because of alcohol use; in recent semesters at Dartmouth and Middlebury such hospitalizations had increased respectively to 200 and 100 students each term. Along with the drinking come activities that can lead to further trouble— fraternity hazing, for example. Drinking before a big game or party often involves downing multiple shots of vodka (the high number mentioned is 22). In such a climate, Emergency Room visits become routine. Combining increased alcohol consumption with the tendency of young adults to postpone relationships in favor of casual “hooking up” creates an unsafe climate for young women, where date rape is a possible consequence. Seaman proposes that the legal drinking age of 21 (up from 18 in the 1960s) makes drinking a tempting illicit activity, and cites the low rate of drinking-related hospitalizations at McGill University in Canada, where the legal drinking age is 18. However, a lower drinking age is no guarantee that teenagers will moderate their consumption; in Great Britain, where the legal drinking age is sixteen, binge drinking is an issue.

The challenging environment of college may take a psychological toll on students. The incidence of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression has doubled statistically in the teenage population since the 1990s, and records of suicidal impulses have doubled in the past several years. Now a quarter of incoming freshmen take medication for mood or learning issues, and many colleges have increased mental health services. Are students under greater stress from a shaky world, the pressure of competition, or their more fragmented social lives? There is only speculation, and no clear answer. It is possible that the higher statistics of emotional issues may also reflect better diagnosis and treatment.

Parents are more involved with their college kids than in prior decades— a mixed blessing. More communication is good, but intrusions by “helicopter parents,” who monitor children at a time when they should become independent decision makers, have a negative effect. Colleges are no longer “in loco parentis” as they were 30 years ago, and Seaman suggests that a more involved faculty, along with peer support, would help students make the transition to independence in their freshman year.

Seaman has some advice for students who are starting college. First, don’t “do shots,” as almost every case of hospitalization involves that intense ritual of alcohol consumption. Second, get to know one professor well each semester. Professors can help to guide a student’s educational and career paths, and later write recommendations. Third, reach out to those who are different, as college is the ideal time to broaden your horizons.

Seaman advises parents to avoid stepping in to handle issues, to let their children have the benefit of becoming responsible for their decisions, and above all to refrain from contacting professors. For those parents who doubt their child’s ability to handle college, Seaman suggests investigating a gap year before residential college.

For most children the college years are the beginning of adult life away from home, the time to explore their interests, chose a career, and learn to trust themselves as decision-makers. While they must go through this process independently, parents can stay attuned and keep talking about their values and about using good judgment. Active communication can help college students navigate a sometimes perilous path with fewer risks and greater confidence.

Aimee Garn is a writer and designer and a publisher of children’s books (www.prettypleasepress.com). She is the chairman of NYC-Parents in Action, Inc., (www.parentsinaction.org), having served as president for the past four years.

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