Perspective of a College Veteran: Why Students Behave Badly

The last  couple of days, I’ve been  exploring why some teenagers can’t emotionally handle their freshman year in college while other students behave worse than toddlers. Here are the posts:

 A Nightmarish Experience at an Ohio University
Could This Student’s Freshman Year Have Been Saved?

I was ready to move on to other topics – some parents have been asking questions about the FAFSA – —  but I decided to linger one more day on this important topic because of a note that I received last night from a woman who has spent more than two decades working with college students.

I think you’ll find her observations fascinating yet sobering. And some parents don’t come off looking good either – they are enabling a lot of this inexcusable behavior. Next week, I promise I’ll tackle the FAFSA and other topics.

An Insider’s Take on Bad Behavior

I spent 25 years working as a student affairs administrator at six different colleges, and was the director of residential life at two. I did my master’s thesis on college roommate compatibility. Sadly, this is an issue that is rampant at colleges across the country, and across the different strata of colleges–elite to open admission. My daughter experienced similar at a small Roman Catholic college.

Without writing a thesis here (which I could), I believe this stems from a convergence of two trends:

No. 1:

First, students go off to college having had unprecedented luxuries growing up. They have never shared a bedroom. Many have never even shared a bathroom. They have their own cars, their own phones, their own credit cards, and have been given a great deal of personal freedom while still in high school. Their parents have leveraged their own lives to provide the financial support such that students have little concern for the price of attending college.

Transitioning to a largely unsupervised residence hall just kick starts their desire to live a life like they have seen on MTV and in the popular media. And although their college may have asked them questions about their lifestyles to encourage roommate compatibility, too often, their parents filled out the questionnaire, or the student was afraid to be honest (“I smoke weed, I drink four nights a week, and my partner and I have been intimate since we were 15”) for fear their parents will see the questionnaire.

No. 2:

Colleges, in their quest to recruit students, provide accommodations and amenities that are more like cruise ships. Free high speed internet, free laundry equipment, 24-hour a day food service catered to each student’s whim, free health club, free 24-hour a day medical care, free counseling services, free tutoring, non-stop activities, parties, movies, clubs. They have private rooms in suites with living rooms and kitchenettes and free cable TV.

What’s Wrong With the Parents

Legal restraints and a fear of losing enrollment have made colleges unwilling to impose strict discipline or oversight. Many parents don’t make it any easier by refusing to allow students to take responsibility for their behavior, calling constantly to intervene or plead for special consideration. I was even offered bribes to “overlook” issues, but more often I was threatened with lawyers.

What will it take to change this? A fundamental shift in how we view college from a time of extended adolescence to a time for learning real-life skills for careers and adulthood. Instead, they graduate, deeply in debt, and wondering why they can’t find a job that will pay enough for them to be able to afford a private apartment, internet, health club, vacations, health insurance, and a housekeeping staff to clean up the vomit in the bathroom every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.

What Do You Think?

As always, please weigh in with your comments at the bottom! I’d love to hear what you think.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy

My Upcoming College Workshop:

I will be holding two college workshops at the University of California, San Diego on Jan. 28 and Feb. 4.  At the workshops — you can sign up for one or both – I aim to share with you ways to help you make smart decisions about picking colleges and making them more affordable.

You can learn more here and sign up for the workshops here. As you’ll see, you must register with UCSD Extension before you can enroll.

Thanks. Lynn O.

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  1. Kids learn by working through new experiences. Random assignment roommates are one of those new learning experiences. My son has spent the last two summers working at a camp with random bunk mates. Some he liked, some he didn’t, one even stole from him. He came home wiser and more prepared for all of the random people that he will be paired with in the future. His college roommate, his project partners, his future boss and his future work partners. We don’t get to pick these people but we do have to find a way to work with them. The sooner you learn that skill, the better.

  2. If I had filled out a roommate questionnaire before going to college I’m sure I would have never been paired with my freshman roommate. We were from opposite ends of the country, so there was a culture difference. We kept different hours, had different study habits, and disagreed about how to arrange the room. Being assigned as roommates forced us to work things out together, and I think we learned a lot in the process. After a rocky start we became close friends. Thirty years later she is still one of my favorite people, and I’m glad I wasn’t matched with someone more “compatible.”

  3. My daughter is a freshman at Chico State. When we visited the campus our guide explained that they have gone away from questionnaires for roommate pairings, in fact they found random selection works just as well. I was appalled and asked for clarification. They told me that students often answer the questions as the person they’d like to be, not who they really are. They’ve never lived in a dorm, without parental involvement. While in high school they had to be at school by 7:45 so don’t even know if they’re going to be able to get up early or not. I was relieved when my daughter called after her first week to let me know that her roommate is nice and they are getting along. I thought it was interesting that the ‘random’ pairing is working out so well.

  4. Great post – and great comments by the previous commenters! Of course, it’s unfair to generalize, but so many of today’s students have great difficulty with college – and the problems are so often attitudinal and behavioral rather than academic. Those of us who work in higher education are often so quick to blame the students for their behavior or lack of life skills, but the students that we have are the students we (as a society) have created.

    It often seems to come back to parents and community and those life lessons that we teach students long before they reach college. Earning their way, learning about finances, learning to manage their time and their life, taking responsibility for their actions, thinking about how their actions affect others are all lessons that will give them the advantage – and help them make their way. So many of those students who don’t succeed in college are those students who haven’t learned these lessons. How many students transfer colleges because they blame the college for their lack of success – and end up taking their problems with them to the next institution?

    We need more focus and more thought to how we, as parents and society, can prepare students for college – and for life. The more “help” we provide, the more we may be hindering their success. Thanks for contributing to this important dialogue.

    1. Thanks Vicki — You make excellent points. Getting prepared for college starts years before a teenager starts thinking about college. I also believe, however, that lots of students aren’t prepared academically for college which, of course, is another issue!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  5. Lynn, I don’t doubt that the woman who wrote you has seen a lot in her years of working with college students but I think it’s overly simplistic to blame materialistic goods and lifestyles – phones, cars, credit cards, private bedrooms and baths – as the source of or reason for boorish behavior. There are plenty of students who have all of the aforementioned but who behave in a respectful manner and who take their academics seriously. And the author’s reference to “free high speed internet, free laundry equipment, 24-hour a day food service catered to each student’s whim, free health club, free 24-hour a day medical care, free counseling services, free tutoring, non-stop activities, parties, movies, clubs” made me laugh; anyone who has seen a college bill recently knows that none of that stuff is “free”!

    I was in college in the late 60s / early 70s. There was plenty of drinking combined with rampant drug use and newly discovered sexual freedom, any or all of which made some students uncomfortable. And none of us had our own phones or credit cards to blame it on back then.

    Perhaps schools need to do a better job of stating their behavioral expectations – but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a policy banning sexual activity in dorm rooms, for example. In addition to asking students about their study and sleep habits, perhaps roommate forms should overtly ask if in-room sexual activity would be tolerated. (Drinking and drug use inquiries are more problematic because of legal questions.) Parents and students need to discuss these issues BEFORE the student leaves for college, and students need to be comfortable in advocating for what they want and what they will tolerate.

    1. Love your observation about all the “free” stuff kids enjoy. I have the receipts to show it ain’t free too.

      After reading the post of the college veteran about what she has seen in the past 25 years, I’m glad I write about college and not work at one!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  6. Why do Students Behave Badly – well, because they are students! I don’t get it. Here we are 55 years after open drinking on campus, 40 years after the flower child days, and 15 years after they have banned virtually everything “fun” for college students. Maybe, we as ‘protective parents’ forgot how much our parents let us just grow up – and not hold our hands during every life decision. I say let’s go back to the ‘old school’ methods!

    1. David — I think there is some truth to what you say. I also want to mention that far more students are going to college than they were 20, 30 and 40 years ago. As a group, I would suggest they aren’t as prepared to deal with college as they were when far fewer were heading to college.

  7. This conversation of the last few posts reminds me of a book I read a few years back and really enjoyed called The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine (I’m just a mom who liked the book, no vested interest). The author is a psychologist who looked at the question of why so many kids who have so much end up depressed and disconnected. What I took away from the book is that often in the race to give kids so much and to meet the needs of preparing kids for admissions, we miss out on helping kids develop some of the fundamental parts of who they are.

    I wish I could say that the student’s experience at U of Dayton was because she chose the wrong college, but don’t believe that believe that. I’ve heard complaints about excess drinking/drugs/slacker attitudes from students attending many schools much higher rated than U of Dayton. Do we think at Oberlin or Kenyon she would necessarily have been spared a drunk or stoned or ill behaved roommate? I don’t.

    As parents we need to work with kids to develop their resilience and problem solving capabilities. The first semester of college isn’t always easy for kids there can be homesickness, mental health problems, bad roommates, or academic struggles. We can’t always predict ahead of time what will happen and we certainly can’t always prevent it. It is part of life and part of growing up. What we can do is start earlier in childhood with working on independence skills and gently move away from solving problems for our kids and move toward helping them become problem solvers. Also, I would encourage parents of college students to continue to remind kids there are good resources on campus for tutoring, counseling, and support. Review these resources BEFORE your kids start college and continue to encourage your student to make use of these resources. Talk openly and honestly about adjustment challenges and set realistic expectations.

    1. Barbara — I should have done a better job of saying that this sort of behavior happens everywhere, including more elite schools like Oberlin and Kenyon colleges.

      I couldn’t agree more that parents need to help children develop resilience and problem solving. I think far too many parents intercede when things are going badly for children at all ages instead of helping them learn how to deal with problems themselves.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  8. Lynn,
    Raising my own children and working with students in a highly affluent area I absolutely agree with these comments! Many parents are eating peanut butter and jelly while their son or daughter is blowing through $20 bucks a week or more on eating out, unlimited gas money and frequent trips to the mall and a cleaning person changing their sheets.

    Recently, I too let my teenager get a IPhone as a birthday present but with the caveat that he has to pay for the data plan by mowing our lawn weekly. It’s amazing how many plastic bottles and cans he recycles from the golf course or park. Our 12 year old is starting to learn how to ride the public bus because he and his friends are to dependent on us parents doing everything for him. Both boys have to do their laundry and put away weekly, clean up the dog waste and do dishes. If they want gum, it’s now on their dime not mine and the oldest has a limited amount of gas for the car that has to last 2 weeks. Tailgating party supplies are now purchased by them and can’t be “stolen” from our pantry. (You have got to see my grocery bill as it is!) Of course we got “that’s not fair” and naturally we let him know life is not fair – get over it. In the end I think we are doing them a favor by raising men who can take care of others, learn to live within their means and handle themselves in college.

    After he leaves for college here’s the deal. He has to take out the student loans and when he successfully completes each semester then we will pay for it. If he fails to keep up his end of the bargain then I guess he will be recycling or mowing lawns for a very long time to pay for that student loan.

    1. Carita – I love how you are instilling responsibility in your boys. I think you are boosting their chances of succeeding in college, as well as in life!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy