Will the Teens Be OK?

Tuesday, March 14, 2023 - New CDC data show that more than half of teenage girls in the U.S. felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, but it's not just girls who are struggling. Lisa Damour, author of The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, breaks down the struggles of teenagers and the implications for colleges and universities from admissions to graduation and beyond. This episode is made possible with support from Ascendium Education Group, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Course Hero.

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The CDC report on increased sadness and exposure to violence among teen girls and LGBQ+ youth

Lisa Damour’s latest book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Lisa’s podcast on the psychology of parenting


Michael Horn:

Conversation in higher ed that doesn't seem like it's going to go away anytime soon is the long-term impact on the mental health and engagement of students from the pandemic.

Jeff Selingo:

You know, Michael, and as we know, this is a generational conversation, given the students who were in elementary and secondary schools will be in college pipeline for the next decade. And today we're going to talk to a clinical psychologist and author who specializes in the development of teenagers, about how to think about everything from admissions, to student success, to career launches on this episode of Future U.


This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. For more information, visit Ascendiumphilanthropy.org.

This episode is brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, working to eliminate race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success, through innovation, data and information, policy and institutional transformation.

Earn continuing education units this spring with Teaching Practice, an online faculty development program from Course Hero. Over a series of asynchronous courses, you'll uncover new ways to leverage tech in the classroom and build inclusive curriculum, all while supporting your own wellbeing.

Plus, you'll get weekly office hours support from leading instructors. Enroll for free today at education.coursehero.com.

Subscribe to Future U, wherever you get your podcasts and if you enjoy the show, share it with your friends so others can discover the conversations we're having about higher education.

Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo.

Michael, it's good to see you again as we head into this home stretch of this season of Future U.

Michael Horn:

And you as well, Jeff. It's been a good year already and I'm looking forward, as we round the corner so far to home plate, if you will.

Jeff Selingo:

It's that time of year, speaking of home plate and baseball, when school breaks really gives us a lot of time to spend with our kids.

So we haven't had much snow here in the mid-Atlantic. Well, really none, so I had the chance to take my youngest daughter on a ski trip recently, that repeated one that I took my older daughter on right before the pandemic.

Somebody once told me to carve out more one-on-one time with each of the kids, and it was a pretty fun trip, as a result. It gave us a chance to really catch up on life and school and to understand what's going well, what's not going so well, her friends, what subjects she likes. They sometimes are really different kids when they are alone.

Michael Horn:

And Jeff, it's actually a good reminder to me to get back to the one-on-one dates that my wife and I used to do pretty regularly with our twins, just to give them some time apart to be their own people and to be with each one of us, just without the other adult there.

But that check-in, just to be able to create the time to listen and not have their own thoughts and feelings interrupted, I think is so vital right now. And before listeners think we're that we're turning this into an episode on our own lives with our kids, I think the reality is both of us just, we naturally think through our work and education like many people do, through the eyes of our own children for at least part of that work.

And what we know from surveys and research from the CDC, that this generation of children was already different from their predecessors in some important ways. And then we had this huge shock to the system in the form of the pandemic.

Jeff Selingo:

So Michael, I think we want to do a check-in on the state of kids and today, particularly looking at teenagers, given our listening audience. These are future college students in the coming years and there's so much discussion and studies about their mental health right now, but also their level of engagement in the classroom and their transition to and from college.

Michael Horn:

So to help us untangle it all, we invited Lisa Damour to be with us today. Lisa's the author of three New York Times bestselling books. Her latest came out in February called The Emotional Lives of Teenagers.

She also co-hosts a podcast called Ask Lisa and is a regular contributor to CBS News. She also maintains a clinical practice, and her spare time I suppose, Jeff, speaks regularly to schools, professional organizations and corporate groups around the world, on the important topics of child and adolescent development, family mental health and adult wellbeing.

Jeff Selingo:

You know, Michael, Lisa's become a friend over recent years and I'm just excited to have her share some of her wisdom today.

Lisa Damour, welcome to Future U.

Lisa Damour:

Thank you so much for having me. I'm delighted to be with you.

Michael Horn:

Well, we're delighted to have you and obviously you've written two New York Times bestsellers before this new book and they were focused on girls in particular. So I suspect many people, but especially Jeff and I as fathers of daughters, are curious. Why did you decide to write this book on teenagers in general?

Lisa Damour:

I've been practicing for almost 30 years and have cared for kids of all genders in my clinical work since the beginning and the pieces I write for the New York Times and my podcast, Ask Lisa, covers kids of all genders, but my book length work had been on girls and then came the pandemic and it landed on teenagers everywhere, in a very particular way, and what I felt needed to be said was really more about how we think about mental health and teenagers as a group, and really to move beyond just thinking about a single gender.

Jeff Selingo:

Let me focus on girls for a minute because as Michael said, he and I both have of girls, and we were drawn to a recent story based on data released by the CDC that you obviously saw because I saw you quoted in some of those pieces.

They found nearly three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021, double the rate of boys. And one in three girls seriously considered attempting suicide.

Should those findings alarm us, particularly those of us who are parents of girls?

Lisa Damour:

Well, they're certainly alarming findings, but Jeff, you note these were collected in 2021. They were actually collected in the fall of 2021. And so when the data came out, I thought, "Okay, what was I taking care of clinically? What was going on for teenagers when these data were collected?" And what was happening is they were entering their third school year that was disrupted by the pandemic. If they were going back, which not every kid was going back, they were going back in masks, which from a medical perspective, fantastic, but very frustrating for kids.

And the other thing, I actually had to go back and look at some old notes to sort of put myself back in that moment. The other thing is that even as things were improving, kids didn't trust it. They were waiting to sort of get excited about their activities and their sports and then to have it ripped away from them again. So, it was a really fraught time.

These are alarming data even knowing though that it's a fraught time, but I think the question that parents have now is, what do those data mean for my kid today? Right? That's really what we want to focus on because that's where we are now and we want to think about, what does this mean now?

And so what I would say to parents is kids being upset, teenagers having moods, that has always in everywhere been what it's meant to be a teenager. And our goal as adults who surround kids right now, is to do a good job of making a distinction between typical and unacceptable adolescent ups and downs, and a mental health concern.

So right now, what I want parents to be on the lookout for in their daughters and their sons, kids of all genders, is not moodiness. We've always seen that in teenagers. We don't want to see a mood that goes to a concerning place and stays there. Teenagers should have ups and downs, but if they get to a place where their mood is getting in the way of their life, that is grounds for concern.

The other thing we don't want to see is what I call, costly coping, when kids are managing feelings in ways that give them a relief, but come with a price tag. So kids are using substances, kids tearing at the fabric of relationships, or kids being harmful to themselves. So, it's bringing relief, but it's doing harm. So those are the things that I would say to you as dads right now, and I would just say to parents everywhere, the data are concerning. We don't know what the snapshot would look like if we took it right this minute, but we do know what we should be on the lookout for.

Michael Horn:

Let's turn then to the mental health of teenagers in general because a survey from ACE during the pandemic surprised both of us that in college and university presidents who typically have quite a bit on their plate, they said that their number one concern right now was the mental health of their students, even above the financial sustainability of their institutions.

Yet at the same time, college leaders consistently are telling us that they just can't keep up with the demand. They can't hire enough counselors. They can't provide enough services. You get the idea.

And so I'm curious how you would approach it from the standpoint of a college leader. How should they address the mental health concerns, that according to Jonathan Haidt and others, have been growing for some time? Because if you think about the CDC report as not just a short term issue, it seems like it requires a real change in mindset on campuses in a shift in services, perhaps?

Lisa Damour:

Perhaps. So there's so many different forces that are coming together in this moment. So one is, we have seen teenagers reporting increasing levels of distress pre-pandemic, and then the pandemic did not make it better. So, we are definitely seeing kids who really are suffering from diagnosable disorders, at rates that are different from what they were in the past. I think it really does raise a question about what do schools need to be providing by way of supports for those students, if they come to college so that they can do college? I think that's a key question.

Another trend that is underneath this, and it's part of why I wrote this book, is that the definition of mental health that circulates in the culture, doesn't match very well with the definition that we use as psychologists. And on this one I'll say I think we're right.

This is our department and we have a pretty strong sense of it. And what I mean by that is that I feel like I'll just go ahead and blame the wellness industry, but probably it's not the only force. I feel like let's say the wellness industry has really given people the impression that mental health is equated with happiness, or a sense of feeling calm, or at ease. And so I am now taking care of a generation of families where there's a lot of anxiety around being uncomfortable or unhappy. And I don't want people to be uncomfortable and I don't want to be people to be unhappy but for psychologists, we don't equate that with a mental health concern. So the definition that I work to bring across in the book, which I think in the end is actually very reassuring, is that mental health is not about feeling good or happy or calm or relaxed. It's about two things.

One, having feelings that fit the moment that make sense in the context. So if we think about college students, the transition to college is wildly stressful. That is entirely appropriate. And then two, handling those feelings effectively. Handling those ways, those feelings in a way that brings relief and does no harm.

So, what do we want a college stress student to do when they're very, very stressed about the transition to college? We want them to be talking to supporting people. We want them to be getting enough exercise. We want them to be protecting their sleep. We want them to find ways to take their minds off of it sometimes. There's a huge repertoire of very, very adaptive strategies that we want to see kids using.

What do we not want to see? Getting blackout drunk, getting themselves in trouble, feeling overwhelmed and getting in their bed and not getting out. That's when we become concerned.

But what I want to do, and I hope this book helps us do, is to shift the spotlight away from the presence or absence of distress. Psychologists are pretty agnostic about distress. We expect it. We're not particularly worried about it. So often, and this can feel like a stretch of evidence of mental health. If somebody is mean to you and you feel hurt, that's evidence that you work perfectly. And I'd rather us really transition the spotlight over to the question of coping and whether it is healthy or unhealthy.

So back to colleges, to the degree that colleges can help frame the definition that being in college is hard, it's always been hard, which doesn't mean there aren't kids having extraordinary experiences, but every kid on campus is going to feel significant ups and downs in the course of being a college student. We don't want students to feel frightened that that means there's something wrong with them, or that they are having a problem that is somehow surprising to those of us who've cared for college kids for a long, long time.

What we want to do is to recognize that distress comes with being a person and certainly being a growing and developing person. And what really, really matters is how it gets handled, whether it's handled in adaptive ways or ways that turn out to not be so adaptive.

Michael Horn:

You're reducing my anxiety as we're talking right now, which I appreciate. I want to turn to the other side of the coin, which is engagement in school because you write in your new book and you just referenced it as well about the emotional upheaval that's common in adolescence. And one of those features has to do with teenagers disliking school.

Now, the teachers and professors we're both talking to are reporting record levels of disengagement right now with their students. But you write, "It is not at all unusual for a student to plot through a conventional education yet be poised to thrive in a career that is not rooted in traditional schooling."

So, I want to know what can or maybe even should parents and teachers do to address this disengagement or this dislike of school itself?

Lisa Damour:

So the quote you read, I would've written before the pandemic, and I wrote it now because I think there's something that we don't talk nearly enough about, which is school isn't a great fit for every kid who's in school. And so I think we need to deal with that head on both in terms of supporting them, helping them find motivation if they do want to stay in school, finding ways to make school is engaging as possible, but also not becoming too disheartened if school isn't where they thrive because so many kids thrive beyond school. So, that's one set of issues.

There is also a very real post band pandemic landscape of kids having a hard time engaging in school. And my husband's a high school teacher and he's a gifted teacher, and we talk about this all of the time. And what he describes to me is kids who were removed from traditional school as a function of the pandemic, lost a lot of information about their role in the learning process. And that's what he often talks with me about is they don't seem to entirely understand where they fit into all of this.

And the example he gave one night that just really stayed with me is that he was meeting with a student who was having a very hard time on tests and the student was saying to my husband, but I'm really studying. I'm studying a lot. And my husband said to him, "After a period of studying, how well do you feel the material?" And the kid looked at him and had no idea what he was talking about.

I think that's where my husband put his finger right on the issue, that sense of how do I fit into this process? Where do I belong in the ownership of my own learning? So we need that in high school. And then in college, that's sort of assumed that you are taking responsibility for the ownership of your learning.

And what I would say is we can't be that surprised that if you disrupt school for one to two years at the level it was disrupted, that kids are going to show up in college looking less prepared than they were. I was thinking about it the other day, I was like, "Well, what if you flipped it around? What if there was no impact?" We'd be like, "Okay, well what if high school's been doing all this time requiring kids to come to school?" So we're seeing the impact. We're seeing the impact of kids who really, aren't entirely ready for college because they missed a lot of steps along the way.

Jeff Selingo:

So Lisa, we talked earlier about girls, but the question that many college and university presidents and enrollment deans and admissions deans I talk with is, kind of what's wrong with boys? Because if you look at enrollment in higher ed, it is largely outpaced. Female enrollment is largely outpaced male enrollment for quite some time in higher ed and then during the pandemic, that gap even widened more.

Many colleges I talk with are really struggling to attract male applicants, struggling to get them to enroll, and then get them to engage them when they're on their campus. I remember the president of Fordham University said, "What can we do to get them out of their dorm rooms where they're mostly playing video games?"

So, what's happening on this front and what could colleges, or should colleges do, if anything?

Lisa Damour:

I feel for the boys in this, very much, because one of the things that we know from the research and that I unpack in my book really around the middle school is that girls suddenly, when puberty hits, get a two-year developmental leap on boys. That if you look at a sixth grade or seventh grade, if you look at just the mode, the modal onset of puberty, the girls are going to be largely moving well into puberty and the boy's not there yet. Boys arrive about two years behind.

There's all sorts of physiological implications of this, but there's also all sorts of neurological implications, that girls' brains just become vastly more mature and sophisticated as a function of puberty, two years ahead of when boys' brains do that.

And so there's lots of boys who cover the gap, or also lots of boys who are on the early side of puberty and don't have that neurological disadvantage. But what we do see that comes through high school and high school educators will tell you this, the girls are just more mature. They're more serious about school. They're able to focus in a different kind of way as a group. This doesn't apply to every kid everywhere, but that's what we see.

So, there's a couple ways to think about this. One is, I think we want to uncouple college admission from college readiness. Those are two very different things. Lots of kids can get themselves into college who are not really ready for college. So then we want to evaluate college readiness as a separate phenomenon. What is college readiness? You are mature enough to take really good care of your own health and safety. You know why you're there and have something that you're really aiming to get out of it. You can make tough decisions like going to class when all of your friends are right there and are ready to play video games. Those are the kinds of things that I would put on a college readiness measure.

And then the question becomes who's evaluating the readiness of any young person to go to college, beyond the kid being admitted? What I think we might ask families is to work more closely with their kids, to uncouple admission, from going to college. I think it's wonderful when a family's kid gets in and they're like, "You know what? We're going to let you get in, but we're going to ask you to take a gap here. We just know you need a little more time to grow, to really make the most of college."

I also think, especially as we're seeing this heightened unreadiness as a result of the pandemic, colleges probably have to up their programming to help kids understand what college is about and how to engage colleges appropriately. And here's the thing that's really interesting to me. There are a lot of colleges that have been doing this for years, and they tend to be colleges that are bringing in non-traditional students, or colleges that are commuter colleges, where they know that part of really breeding the success of the students they have coming in, is they're going to need to offer more structure and more orientation to what the expectations and demands are of college.

I think that what we're probably hearing more kind of gaps from, or the colleges that have never had to do that before. That they were positioned so that they were taking in students who largely understood the brief and knew how to fulfill it.

Jeff Selingo:

So when I talk to professors, they blame so much of what they're seeing in the classroom now on the pandemic; the students who missed academic classes, social time with friends, extracurricular activities.

As a result, the professors I talk to say students are falling behind academically and they lack many executive functions in classrooms. I can't tell you about the number of professors saying they don't know how to work in groups. They don't know how to ask for help. They don't show up for office hours.

So just like we're not going back to 2019 and so many other things, we're not going back to 2019 in terms of what we expect from teenagers either.

Were those expectations always off about what we expected from teenagers back in 2018, 2019? Were our expectations just too much for where they are in their developmental phase?

Lisa Damour:

No and yes. So what I will say is, these are professors who've been at these campuses for a long, long time and they've seen tons of cohorts of kids come through who could do what was being asked, who understood their role in the learning process and could fulfill their role in the learning process.

And then unsurprisingly, we get this cohort that arrives that did high school in their dining room, as one of my kids did, and unsurprisingly, they're not as prepared as the kids who were going to school as we have traditionally done. So I don't think that the expectations were too high before, but I do think we have to deal with the fact that we have a cohort of kids in college, who really missed some important steps in terms of understanding school and how it works, so I think there's that factor.

The yes though is, and I know this is something you've thought about and worked on. Prior to the pandemic, we were just watching this ratcheting, ratcheting, ratcheting, ratcheting up of what we were asking kids in general, or them asking the most ambitious kids really.

So, I just had a daughter go to college this past fall and we did the application process, saw her through her senior year, and I remember applying to college and I'm looking at this kid's application and I am like, "Oh my gosh, this is bananas what we are asking of the most ambitious kids who are trying to go to the most selective schools. This is completely over the top."

And so part of me is like, "Okay, well if the pandemic brings about a reset on how we evaluate some of those things or test becoming optional, takes the temperature down on the frog in the water, that long metaphor, I'm good with all of that. I am good with all of that." Or just everybody eases up a little bit about this half having to go in a very particular way.

Jeff Selingo:

So you would talk a little bit in the book about helping teens adopt a new vantage point, which I like because I think teens are so caught up in their own lives right now, that they often forget what an outsider might see, especially for example, around this admissions process. They're talking to so many who are frenzied right now because they're kind of waiting on decisions, or so many were deferred this year and they didn't expect that.

I always tell them, "Just pause for a second and kind of look at it from a different perspective. Look at it from the perspective, for example, of the admissions officer, who has to review all those applications."

So given that teenagers think their lives are spiraling out of control sometimes, especially for example, again around this admissions piece right now, how do you get them to consider that new vantage point?

Lisa Damour:

Well, I'll tell you how I often do it when I'm talking to high school seniors is, I say to them, "Here's something you should know that we forget to tell you. After about age 25, no one knows where you went to college. They really don't, right? I mean, unless you're somehow bringing it up, it really becomes quite invisible."

And I will tell them, I remember realizing this when I was in grad school. I was on a master's swim team and one of my dearest friends was this woman Catherine in the English department, and we were hanging out constantly. And about six months in I thought, I have no idea where Catherine went to college. And I'm thinking, "Why did nobody tell me this that this sort of disappears?" And so what I will tell you is that teens are surprised to learn this and of course they're surprised because from where they sit, it's like college, college, college, college. And we very much give them the impression that wherever you go is somehow kind of tattooed on you and everyone's going to be able to see it and it's going to determine everything that happens next.

So even that little shift, can be useful. And I will say to them, so if you get what you want, or you don't get what you want, it's actually going to be a chapter that closes pretty fast, and then there's going to be a whole lot more chapters. So, that's one thing I have found that can help.

The other thing I say to high school seniors is, "Look. Control the controllables. This is such a wild process. There are so many things that are outside of your hands. I want you to feel as good as you can about whatever outcome you get and part of how you're going to get there is you're going to feel like the things that you could do something about, you did do something about." And that can, I think, sometimes feel like a bit of a relief.

Michael Horn:

Know your sphere of influence. So your book is focused on teenagers and adolescence of course, but given many of our listeners are on college campuses, they're wondering when the emotions spin that you write about, does it devolve through college? Does it keep going? Does it ever end?

And in particular, there's another transition we're interested in, which is one that's coming up, which is college graduation. It's a time of big emotions for students, particularly given the economy right now, the hybrid job market, which I think looks different to today's students than their predecessors. Any advice you have for parents or for college leaders in dealing with the big emotions of the class of 2023?

Lisa Damour:

Lower expectations. But I would've said that at any point in time, not just around the aftermath of the pandemic. I think one of the things that is so hard about being a college student is, you really are given the impression you're being set up for success. And if you do well, you'll do well, right? I mean, that really is very much the messaging.

I remember I have very vivid memories of sitting at my own college graduation. I was graduating with honors from Yale. There was no reason I should have felt bad about how this had gone down. So what was my post-college job? I was walking my plants from my dorm to my crummy one room apartment, so that I could continue to do research in the exact same lab I've been working in since I was a sophomore. And I'm sitting at graduation thinking, "This is it?"

And then I start my first job and all I'm doing is entering data in a windowless room for eight hours a day. Now, I have become increasingly convinced that mid-career thriving is almost always on the back of 10 to 20 years of early career grunt work and I wish somebody told me that because I think there is this grand celebratory moment at graduation, and some kids are going off to Stanford Medical School and Harvard Law School, and they can feel great about that moment because their path is really clear. Most kids are like, "This is it?" Right? And most kids are me.

And so I really wish we spent a lot more time talking with college seniors of like, "Okay, now, it's going to get a lot more pedestrian and probably a lot more boring, and you're going to be doing a lot of grunt work for a while, and that is okay because that's how you get where you want to go." But it can feel deflating. And I certainly, I personally had an experience of feeling very, very deflated.

Jeff Selingo:

And now to your earlier point, Lisa, now our listeners know where you went to undergraduate college. Of course my cohost here, Michael Horn, also went to Yale. We've had, I think we've had more Yales as guests on the show than probably any other college or university in this country, so I think Michael, this might be it. We might have to say no to Yale.

Michael Horn:

We're going to have a put a quota on Yale.

Jeff Selingo:

It actually leads into my last question because we've had another guest on the show, another Yale graduate in Anya Kamanetz last season and we were talking about the impact of the pandemic on K through 12 schools and higher ed. And we just had a simple question for her that I think a lot of parents and people who work with young people today are just thinking about.

Are the kids going to be okay?

Lisa Damour:

So let me start with the hard part and only get to the better part. The hard part is there were kids who were fragile before the pandemic, for whom the pandemic made things like truly horrendous and fragile in any variety of ways.

There were kids who were not fragile before the pandemic, or were doing okay before the pandemic and the conditions of the pandemic brought about difficulties, lasting, very hard to shake. So, I'm going to be honest. If I could go back and just erase the pandemic, oh would I, in terms of what its impact has been on kids.

That said, our kids are going to be okay. But a huge part of how we get them there is how we talk about them and how we react to their distress. I think we want to be really careful about suggesting the teenagers are broken.

I think we want to be really careful about suggesting that distress is in and of itself, on its own grounds for concern. I think we want to go back to what we know about what really, really helps young people thrive. And here's what it is. Good working relationships with adults, ways to make meaningful contributions, and then I know this sounds so small and basic, getting good sleep, adequate physical activity, solid nutrition.

Those things go so far and part of how we make those things happen is that the adults who surround young people keep their eye on those balls, and then also make sure that when teenagers come our way with distress, we greet them as a steady presence. We don't overreact, we don't jump into action, which usually for them affirms that it is even worse than they thought it was. That as much as that we can be forward-looking and hopeful for adolescents, that sends a very strong message to teenagers about our belief in their ability to get through hard things, to grow and learn in the context of difficulty.

Now, this isn't going to be every kid, and we're going to see kids who absolutely deserve specialized care and additional care, but we want to be really mindful that how kids come out of this will impart hinge on how we get them through it. And the thing I'll say more than anything else, we do have an adolescent mental health crisis. We are not going to solve it by having more therapy for more kids. It's not a practical reality and we know that. Here's how we solve it. By strengthening the relationships between teenagers and the adults in their immediate environment. That's how we're going to do it.

Jeff Selingo:

And that's something, by the way, that given the focus of this podcast that I think colleges and universities can do a lot more of in terms of helping students find that those relationships, whether they are professors, coaches, mentors, and other adults on college campuses.

Lisa, this has just been absolutely terrific and a great way to end on a positive note and really keep us hopeful for what's next, so thank you so much for joining us today.

Lisa Damour:

Thank you for having me.

Jeff Selingo:

And we'll be right back on Future U.

This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. Ascendium believes that system level change and a student-centric approach, are important for our nation's efforts to boost post-secondary education and workforce training opportunities. That's why their philanthropy aims to remove systemic barriers faced by these learners, specifically first generation students, incarcerated adults, veterans, students of color, adult learners, and rural community members.

For more information, visit ascendiumphilanthropy.org.

This episode is being brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Today's college students are more than just students. They're workers, parents and caregivers and neighbors, and colleges and universities need to change to meet their changing needs.

Learn more about the foundation's efforts to transform institutions to be more student-centered at US program at gatesfoundation.org.

Jeff Selingo:

Welcome back to Future U, following that really insightful conversation with Lisa, that I think gets really personal for us. Michael, given, as we said, I have one teenager and between us, we have three more entering those years pretty soon. So, this is a discussion that I think is both personal and professional for us.

But let's focus for a moment here on the professional, because I think Lisa had a lot of nuggets that could prove useful to parents of college students and college leaders, especially given, as we mentioned, presidency, mental health is the number one issue they're confronting. So let's start here.

Lisa said that as things started to go back to normal during COVID, she said kids didn't trust it. I thought that was a really interesting quote, and I don't think parents did either. There's all this data and research now on the number of kids who have left the public school system and on growing parent frustration with that system. So, I'm just kind of curious, given your expertise in kind of the K through 12 world, what's the state of trust in K through 12 schooling now among students and their parents? I've always seen trust in our system, in the US system as our point of distinction.

Is that changing?

Michael Horn:

It's an interesting observation, Jeff, and for you to pick up on it because it's well known that I think it's well known. Any way that historically Americans will rate the public schools writ large in the country is not doing all that well. But then when you ask them, "Well, how is your local public school?" They rate them really highly.

But interestingly enough, that later mark, since reaching a high point in 2019, according to the Education Next Survey of Public Opinion, that number's actually been falling year-over-year and especially among Republicans. And then if you look at the percentage of Black families who would give their local school an A or B, it's even lower than the Republicans number. So, I think you couple that with the fact that enrollment in public school districts is down by more than a million since the pandemic with large numbers of families moving to independent schools, charter schools, homeschooling. According to some estimates, Jeff, you have 2.2 million kids in micro-schools. And then there's like tons of folks who are just missing from the data and we have no idea what they're doing. I think coupled together, that's a pretty strong picture that people have just lost a lot of faith and trust, just as you said.

And obviously that's not just in public schools. I think it's in institutions more generally, but it's certainly public school districts as well. And I think parents saw how they failed them; whether they stayed closed too long, whether they taught poorly, whether they taught things that they find objectionable, whether they ignored the science of reading and just didn't teach large numbers of kids how to read.

So yeah, I think there's a real decline in the trust in public schools right. Jeff, I imagine, like me, you've been tracking the CDC stats around mental health and depression among teens, particularly teenage girls, and it appears, again, particularly teenage girls who are actually liberals, by the way, and that Jonathan Haidt has been doing some really interesting research around all these questions and he's been centering on the impact of social media on them. And it's John and then along with Gene Twenge, who are saying, "Yeah, COVID accelerated some of these trends, but actually the trends have been there since teens started going on social media."

Now, against that backdrop, Jeff, Lisa mentioned that the transition to college is tough and that the wellness industry, as she said, is, "Really given people the impression that mental health is equated with happiness."

I found that quote so interesting, Jeff, because I think it sort of calls into question a bunch of assumptions around a lot of these self-reports anyway, around mental health challenges. But I guess here's the other question. A lot of that is tied into people's conceptions of what success looks like.

And so, is it the case that maybe we've created some of these challenges by having overly high expectations of colleges around this idea of student success?

Jeff Selingo:

It is interesting, Michael, because we've seemed to have moved from the kind of paper chase mentality of college, which of course was about law school, but it had that famous line that people repeat all the time telling the professor, telling the students, "Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you won't be here next year." And that was of course a very institutionally-focused idea of higher education in terms of weeding students out.

And then we moved to the student success movement of the last two decades. And what's not clear to me is what success really is for institutions. It's obviously around retention, but I always wonder how much is good enough? So, the pendulum has really swung and that's not to say that a student-centered model is bad, but I think we really need to have a better sense of KPIs as an industry.

Lots of schools will say they want to be at the average of their peer set, in terms of retention and graduation rates, for example. But the better question to be asking I think is given the makeup of your student body, the student body at a particular institution, is that where they should be or should they be somewhere else, whatever that might be? What does success look like for them? And the reason that I think this matters is that what I'm hearing is a lot of skepticism about the value of the degree from employers.

We know that colleges and universities are focused on the value of the degree from the family perspective, from the perspective student perspective, the ROI to families. But there's also pressure now on the other side, which is the completion into the workforce side, especially given some states like Utah, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, they're all moving to make a lot of their state jobs now degree optional.

I think what we really want to show as a higher ed industry is that yes, we've done away with weed out courses. We're focused on student success and being student-centered institutions. But at the same time, we still have these important quality milestones that students need to reach and I think employers might be missing a little bit of that and getting that balance right, Michael, is key. I'm wondering how colleges, as Lisa says, can frame the definition that being in college is hard, without making students as she adds, feel frightened about it.

Michael Horn:

Jeff, I think you're pointing to the wisdom of mastery based learning, that we're going to hold these high standards and that you got to get to them and I think what it points to is if you take that seriously, that struggle is important and we have to give the signal to students that struggles aren't just important. They're actually natural and there's some research, as you know from psychologists, David Yeager at UT Austin and Greg Walton at Stanford among many others, showing that if you actually normalize the struggles in college, then you can help people realize that struggles or challenges, are actually normal, and then that causes those people to persist far more.

And so one way that they do do it is they've shown stories of older students, and shown their struggles and then how they ultimately overcame them and were successful. And when you did this early on in a student's college experience, particularly those from first gen families who don't have a lot of experience with college, it closed the differences in full-time enrollment and grades between students from backgrounds that are disadvantaged, at the college and other students at the same schools, by get this 31 to 40%. That's a huge shift by just normalizing struggle.

And so I think we have to do a better job of saying, this is normal and working through it won't hurt you. It won't weaken you and I'm going to take another thing from Jonathan Haidt's research around how young people try to avoid challenging words and ideas. And you got to shift it to say, "Actually grappling with this will actually strengthen you. It will make you better. It'll show you that you can work through it. It'll give you the sense of agency that you are in control."

And back to the mastery based learning idea, I think we need to be introducing this in K-12, but certainly higher ed where we say, struggle and failure is a normal part of the process and it's on the road to mastery. Yes, there's hard points, but you can overcome them and get the results.

By doing so, we build in things like resilience and agency and the creation of self-efficacy or esteem into the academics themselves, rather than just creating more things schools should do, 'cause I think a lot of people are probably listening to us and being like, "Oh my gosh, your faculty going to have to wait into mental health challenges. We're just not equipped." You're right, but you can actually handle it through the teaching of academics.

Now, Jeff, I will say though, speaking of hard, it raised another idea in my head, which is I was struck by Lisa talking about the superhuman applications that students feel like they must have to apply to college. Is this, do you think where some of this feeling of it's too hard or success is the opposite of hard, sort of starts, or at least accelerates? In other words, are we asking too much of students and admissions right now?

Jeff Selingo:

Well, I think the simple answer is yes, or at the very least, I don't think we're asking for the right things, especially as applications have increased 30% in the last three years. I was just looking at these numbers from the common app. So that's the common app number, 30% in the last three years. Raw applications up 1.55 million more applications. So 1.5 million more apps this year compared to the class of 2020. So, just in three years it's declined that much and those high school classes are about the same in terms of their size.

In many of these selective colleges still promise holistic review, but given all that they ask for in the application, that's becoming a lot more difficult to do, to look at all the stuff that students send, without adding more staff, which they're really not able to do or really speed reading through it.

So the question is, what should they be asking for? What do they really want to know? And I think in many ways, they're less interested in what the student has done than what they possibly can do when they get to campus. So often in the admissions offices when I was in there, I often often heard them say about an applicant, "What will they do when they're here? What courses will they take? What clubs will they join?" They really want to make sure that there's that growth mindset, that these students, applicants haven't peaked in high school. But the mentality around applications is putting it into overdrive in high school and burning out in many cases, just to get into that right college. So students end up peaking in high school, which is exactly what college admissions offices don't want. So, what might this look like? What might something different look like?

I think a combination of what we have now. So we're still going to need grades, for example, but maybe less focus on collecting six, 10, 15 AP courses. Let's look at kids who take interesting and hard classes. But what I'm most interested in, Michael, is what you were just talking about, this idea of skills and what do students really know. I think it really goes along with this idea of mastery-based learning, of figuring out is there another way on the transcripts, to show what the students know rather than just what they did. I just think there's a lot of pressure on the system right now on the admission system, and I really do think it's going to break in many ways.

And Michael, I think we're also setting up kids for this unrealistic expectation at the other end of college. I was interested in what Lisa said about careers, that mid-career thriving, which maybe I hope that we're both doing now in the middle of our own careers, is about all that grunt work you do early in your career.

It's interesting, Scott Galloway talks often about this on his podcast about how today's college students are just not patient enough about their careers. So how might colleges encourage that, while at the same time they're putting so many more resources in career services as we know, which everyone wants.

How can they balance that with helping kids say, "You know, have to be also a little patient about what comes next?"

Michael Horn:

Well, Jeff, I think it's maybe almost a cliche at this point, about how millennials just want everything right away and they don't want to pay their dues. They think they should graduate and not have to do the hard work and get paid.

I hesitate personally to opine about a generation. I think it's easy to do and certainly feel like there's some truths there. But what do I know? I think every generation looks at the next one and says, "Oh, those kids don't do X."

But I do think the basic formula that you do some grunt work early on to learn the foundations of the business, whatever you're working on, build judgment, understand the fundamentals of how things work and why, and then you take that knowledge to move up and do better and add more value, that's something we ought to be working on in embedding.

I know I'm a broken record on this stuff, but again, I think it comes back to what we were just talking about. It starts with showing that hard work and effort are what it takes, and we have to get out of this, I'm playing the school game just to get the grade or whatever else, that causes people to skirt doing the hard work and instead they want to invest the time and effort because they see it as about improving themselves, rather than just getting by. And then hopefully they can take that and translate that to their career as well.

I think right now it's a little bit too easy just to look at, say a YouTube or Instagram influencer on social media and say, "Why don't I have that many followers?" Or whatever else, and assume it ought to be that easy. And that's perhaps where social media is hurting our youth right now as well.

But the formula, I think that you and I, we have both certainly followed in our own careers. I don't think that's gone away. It's still a tried and true one. And indeed, despite the popular perception that entrepreneurs are all like 20-something college dropouts, I'm pretty sure the average age of successful startup founders is like 45 in this country. So, I think we also have to tell the narrative a little bit more accurately rather than just focus on the exceptions, if you will, that create great storylines.

So Jeff, one last thing, given that rankings are in the news a lot right now, Lisa talked about how much colleges need to provide the basics for student mental health, meaning better sleep, more adult relationships, better eating habits.

Should we maybe rank college on how they do against those basics?

Jeff Selingo:

Oh, Michael, how I would love a ranking that doesn't talk about how good the food is in the dining hall or the best dorms like the Princeton Review does, but more on how much is this school going to take care of me? It's really interesting.

A few years ago I worked on a paper with EVERFI and we'll put that in the show notes and there was one finding I won't forget because EVERFI provides these courses to students such as alcohol prevention training, for example. So they have millions of students on their platform as a result. So they're able to survey them and ask them these questions, and they ask them what was most important when deciding which college to attend. And 82% said safety and wellbeing were as important as academic rigor. 72% said colleges need to do more for the wellbeing of their students.

So could you imagine us talking about colleges that are both rigorous but also give their kids things like mental health days on occasion. They really focus on good sleeping and eating habits. I mean, how often is that really talked about these days in on colleges?

And when we've talked about on the show before, Michael, about intercollegiate athletics, for example, and a move towards this idea of improving the habits of the mind and the body. So could you imagine just having movement and fitness classes for everybody and we start to rank colleges on that as well.

Michael Horn:

I like where you're going, but I think we're going to leave e'er pining on the future of movement and fitness for another day, Jeff. And instead we're going to go to one of our favorite segments in which we get questions from you, our audience. And this segment, this season of course, is supported by Course Hero.

So Jeff, the question this time comes from Bernadette Sweeten from Fair State University in Michigan, and Bernadette asks, "How can I help my students heal emotionally from the pandemic and the political turmoil of the past years? How can I help my students regain or learn the skills that they lost or missed over the past two years?"

Jeff Selingo:

So that's a great question from Bernadette. I've been back on the road a lot, probably too much this academic year at both high schools talking about admissions and on college campuses, talking about innovation in higher ed and I always love the chance to really interact with students, and I think there are a few things that they seem to be looking for in my conversations with them.

One is a role in education. They don't want to just be recipients of information. They want to be active participants in their learning. They want that optionality. We've talked a lot about that on this podcast. They want more choice in how they learn, so rolling their education optionality. Third approachability, they've really enjoyed getting access to their teachers and professors over Zoom on their terms.

So how might that continue, especially since this generation is not one to take advantage of office hours or the horrors of talking to people in-person? They want variety. Students want a variety of approaches to teaching and learning with an emphasis on interactive activities and hands-on learning.

And finally, they want to know why does it all matter? How can I connect it to me and what I want to do? In other words, how can I translate and transfer the learning from the classroom to what I'm doing outside of it?

Michael Horn:

Jeff, that's a great place I think to leave it and sum up the show. So first, I thank you to Bernadette for the question brought to you by Course Hero. And then a big thank you to Lisa Damour, of course, for just a terrific and enlightening conversation that frankly has me feeling a lot better, Jeff, about the future on these fronts. And a thank you to all of you, our listeners, on Future U. Until next time.

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