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College Students Are Tired of Being Treated Like Employees

Generation Z is struggling. Is it because they’re too “fragile,” as some pundits claim, or because universities are increasingly acting like human resources departments?

Students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland
JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images
Students in the Reading Room at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland

College students are struggling. They’re ignoring homework, flunking tests, skipping classes—a “stunning” level of disengagement, as one professor put it to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Last year, the magazine informally surveyed more than 100 faculty members, from a range of higher-ed institutions, who reported back that students were “defeated,” “exhausted,” and “overwhelmed.” The evidence bears this out: College students are burned out and stressed out. While Covid-19 certainly exacerbated the problem, long-term studies show students’ mental health was declining for years before the pandemic hit.

There’s little dispute about this much; the question is why today’s students are struggling. Some commentators—namely those with a track record of criticizing undergraduates—argue that Gen Z, for a variety of reasons, is simply not tough enough.

“We have a whole generation that’s doing terribly,” Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist and author of The Coddling of the American Mind, told The Wall Street Journal in December, adding that there has “never been a generation this depressed, anxious and fragile.” Haidt blames this “national crisis” in part on social media and in part on a “new ideology” that “valorizes victimhood.” “Here they are in the safest, most welcoming, most inclusive, most antiracist places on the planet,” he said, “but many of them were acting like they were entering some sort of dystopian, threatening, immoral world.” That these students are now entering the workforce may, Haidt argues hyperbolically, “undermine American capitalism.”

But Haidt has it backward. Student “fragility” is instead being reinforced by a feature of capitalism that has overtaken American campuses.

“Students are regarded by the institution as ‘customers,’ people to be pandered to instead of challenged,” William Deresiewicz wrote in a viral 2014 New Republic essay imploring parents not to send their kids to Ivy League schools. This has long been the conventional wisdom, and not without reason: Grade inflation is a real phenomenon, and colleges spend billions wooing students through marketing and expensive, state-of-the-art facilities.

But it’s more accurate to say that colleges today treat students like employees.

Readers of this essay from Generation X or earlier who attended college will recall having to complete only one curriculum: an academic one. But for years now, nonacademic programs have proliferated on campus with the intention of preparing students for life on, and more importantly beyond, campus. Not to be confused with voluntary “extracurricular activities” that students often organize themselves, these programs are designed by administrators and are required of students in addition to their academic work. More troublingly, the programs often run counter to the ethos of academic inquiry.

University of Virginia professor Chad Wellmon calls it “the Other University.” As he explained in a 2021 essay in The Point magazine, “The Other University does not have a faculty; it has a staff with professional degrees and doctorates in higher-ed administration.” And rather than an academic curriculum, “it has programming: health and wellness, multicultural awareness, community outreach, personal enrichment and career counseling. Within the managerial ethos of the Other University, these aren’t topics for discussion and discovery, they are messages to be internalized and abided.” Wellmon laments “the rigidity of the Other University’s rules and the fixedness of its goals,” adding, “If the faculty aspire to guide students in open, searching inquiry, the Other University fits students to the ready-made norms and values of a complex institutional structure and a professional world students will soon inherit.”

In practice, the Other University includes online trainings, wellness instruction, and discussions led by consultants and administrators about how to be resilient, manage conflict, and meet the expectations of adult professional life. These demands are designed to mirror those of what we euphemistically call “work-life balance”: strategies for coping with the near-total incursion of our professional lives into our personal lives. This tendency to treat students as employees from the time they set foot on campus is at the heart of why students are struggling. Earlier and earlier, we’re imposing on them the expectations of adult professional life, but without the necessary autonomy and experience.

When college students say school is a significant source of stress, you might think it’s because the academic curriculum is working them too hard. The Department of Education recommends about two hours of out-of-class work per credit hour. At Colby College in Maine, where I teach, full-time students typically take 16 credit hours per semester, which would translate to 32 hours of studying per week. But national surveys suggest students are spending more like 13 to 17 hours per week preparing for class.

Meanwhile, the increasingly ambitious and capacious Other University—what schools often call the “residential” or “student life” curriculum—threatens to overwhelm, rather than complement, the academic curriculum. Wesleyan University’s residential curriculum includes among its four learning goals “critical thinking” and “effective communication,” two skill sets that traditionally belong to the academic curriculum. At Washington University in St. Louis, the four learning goals are “value-centered scholarship,” “identity integration,” “community responsibility,” and “holistic well-being.” These include expectations of student “outcomes” after each year of school and promise far more than what the required programming of trainings and seminars could deliver.

With over 40 percent of full-time students also working a job, no wonder they’re stressed out. And the problem is not just the additional time and requirements that the residential curriculum asks of students; it’s also the mentality it imposes on students, one that reflects the priorities of professional human resource management more than of higher education. In such an analogy, the university’s administrative body that oversees student life is like an H.R. department, requiring resiliency and sensitivity trainings, implementing conduct policies, and arbitrating interpersonal disputes. This is, to be clear, necessary and important work. But the point of this work is not always to foster critical thinking or deep self-awareness; it’s too often to tell students what to do and make sure they comply. And that’s precisely why we shouldn’t conflate it with critical thinking pedagogy or “value-centered scholarship.”

It’s no surprise, then, that too many students are experiencing college not as freeing and intellectually exciting but as highly regulated and proscriptive. The academic curriculum promises the liberal arts and sciences; the residential curriculum promises a form of professionalized self-reliance in partnership with consultancies and outside organizations that usher students through a series of co-curricular requirements. Pundits and politicians focus on campus speech norms, political correctness, “wokeness,” and the faculty’s left-leaning politics as sources of student suppression, but it’s actually American workplace norms, designed to manage institutional risk and control interpersonal relations, that college students are most likely to encounter in their daily lives.

I regularly ask my students how they’re coping with their workloads and other obligations, so I can gauge how best to support them in my role as a professor. Increasingly, they say they have more boxes to tick than make sense, more pressure to join LinkedIn and grow their résumés earlier in their college careers, more people telling them how to act than asking them how they think they ought to act. The academic curriculum certainly isn’t blameless, but it’s striking to hear that so many of my students’ anxieties center on meeting the expectations of adult professional life rather than their academic requirements.

To be clear, I think certain forms of professionalization are important goals of higher education. I recently traveled to Washington, D.C., with 10 of my students to take part in a weeklong “journalism bootcamp” at a leading international policy think tank, an experience we all found exceptionally rewarding. Preparing them involved a mix of academic instruction and advising on the nuances of business professional dress or how to discreetly pack snacks for the 10 hours a day we’d spend in the office producing a story in partnership with professional journalists and policy experts. There’s a difference between this kind of hands-on experience—the kind that comes with opportunities for students to use their coursework and creativity in a professional setting—and the ever-present structure of the residential curriculum, which conveys to students that the point of college is to mold them into obedient employees (and apparently ones who may nonetheless “undermine American capitalism,” if Haidt is to be believed).

I would never write off a whole generation as Haidt does (partly because, as a millennial, I’m part of another written-off generation). I’m not sure whether Gen Z is actually more “fragile” than previous ones. But if my students are struggling more than ever, it’s at least partly because college has them serving two masters under the auspices of one. They’re ostensibly on campus to study academic subjects, all of which have much to offer by way of skills for both personal and professional development. What life skills are students getting from outsourced online trainings on, say, engaging with different perspectives that they can’t get from a course in social psychology or African American Studies? Yet increasingly students are shepherded toward that other master that the residential curriculum stands in for: the expectations of the office.

Students’ mental health would certainly improve if we were to recognize and correct for this double bind. But so would their personal—and therefore professional—development. College is the last opportunity for students to learn how to think and be in the world with a partial buffer from workplace demands, to shape a self yet unshaped by the protocols of human resources. We must doggedly protect that window for their intellectual freedom and independence, not Zoom trainings and wellness seminars.