“Helicopter Colleges” Confront Lack of “Grit” in Students

Man stuck in the crevice of two rocks

Interesting fact:

The head of the student counseling department at Boston College recently sent the following email to his faculty: “I have done a considerable amount of reading and research in recent months on the topic of resilience in college students. Our students are no different from what is being reported across the country on the state of late adolescence/early adulthood. There has been an increase in diagnosable mental health problems, but there has also been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life. Whether we want it or not, these students are bringing their struggles to their teachers and others on campus who deal with students on a day-to-day basis. The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the University and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”

The themes showing up among students at Boston College and elsewhere around the country are as follows, according to counseling staff:

Less resilient and needy students have shaped the landscape for faculty in that they are expected to do more handholding, lower their academic standards, and not challenge students too much.

Students are afraid to fail; they do not take risks; they need to be certain about things. For many of them, failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable. External measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development.

Faculty, particularly young faculty members, feel pressured to accede to student wishes lest they get low teacher ratings from their students. Students email about trivial things and expect prompt replies.

Failure and struggle need to be normalized. Students are very uncomfortable in not being right. They want to re-do papers to undo their earlier mistakes. We have to normalize being wrong and learning from one’s errors.

Growth is achieved by striking the right balance between support and challenge. We need to reset the balance point. We have become [the counseling head at Boston College writes] a “helicopter institution.”

Another interesting fact:

“[Students] haven’t developed skills in how to soothe themselves, because their parents have solved all their problems and removed the obstacles. They don’t seem to have as much grit as previous generations,” according to Dan Jones, past president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Director, writing in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College at author of “Free to Learn” is quick to add,

But I don’t blame parents, or certainly not just parents. Parents are in some ways victims of larger forces in society—victims of the continuous exhortations from “experts” about the dangers of letting kids be, victims of the increased power of the school system and the schooling mentality that says kids develop best when carefully guided and supervised by adults, and victims of increased legal and social sanctions for allowing kids into public spaces without adult accompaniment. We have become, unfortunately, a “helicopter society.”


Personal insecurity and fear of failure are universal and timeless themes.

However, it’s worth noting when colleges and universities throughout the country perceive an increase in psychological syndromes related to anxiety, to the point where the schools can barely handle them.

One thing is clear. Young people are not getting what they need. By the time many of them get to college, it’s self-evident. What they’re not getting, and who’s most to blame, can be a matter of debate. But clearly, they are not getting it, whatever it is.

Let’s first examine the symptoms.

Young people, in record numbers it seems, are telling their college professors and administrators, “Don’t flunk me. Don’t even give me a C. The mediocre grade I got is your fault.”

It’s sad and hard to contemplate how a society built on the achievements of people like Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, the Wright Brothers and so much else has reached a point where it’s normal and to-be-expected for college administrators to face an epidemic of students who cannot cope with a “C” grade and demand attention to this fact.

What this story does not mention is how Boston College (the author’s home school) and other institutions of higher learning are responding to the irrationality. One wonders, for example, if they are they saying, “Too bad. You’re in college now. This is the real world of academics. Whatever went on in high school or at home, standards here will be objective.” Perhaps they want to say it; but can they? Would they be morally condemned and/or financially sued into oblivion, if they did? If so, then there’s the real source of the problem, more than the students themselves.

Efforts are currently underway to push for more federal control over college education. Socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is calling for outright nationalization. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Barack Obama stop short of that, but favor so many additional regulations on colleges (rationalized by student loan defaults and tuition inflation) that their proposals will amount to the same thing. If what happened in health care (i.e., Obamacare) is any guide, sooner or later the federal government will, given continuing social and political trends, control all of higher education just as it presently controls virtually all grade school and high school education.

At this point, we have to ask ourselves: How well has the federal government done at preparing young people for even the most moderate or normal rigors of college education? The evidence seems to suggest, “Not very well.” This should give parents and voters pause before supporting anything like an even further expansion of government into education, as it’s now poised to do.

Imagine Boston College as an individual. Imagine that individual is saying, “These kids are ranting and raving at the slightest thing. They’re a mess. I don’t know what to do with them.” My first question to an individual would be, “How are you responding? Are you giving in? Or are you helping them take a deep breath while not budging on the standards you require?”

If you respond to lack of resilience with a lack of courage and fortitude yourself, you are a poor leader. The Dog Whisperer understands this, when it comes to dogs. Granted, humans are much more complex. But if parents, teachers and other student leaders give in to all of their out-of-context, unwarranted or exaggerated fears, then what’s to become of these young people in the future?

I’m fascinated by this statement  most of all:

[Students] haven’t developed skills in how to soothe themselves, because their parents have solved all their problems and removed the obstacles. They don’t seem to have as much grit as previous generations.

What is “grit,” anyway?

I looked it up. One relevant definition defined grit as, Courage and resolve; strength of character. For example,
He displayed the true grit of the navy pilot.

Grit and resilience spring from the same source: confidence in one’s mind to think and reason.

Confidence in yourself is, at root, confidence in your own mind. While your body and physical health are necessary, you’re sunk — from a confidence point-of-view — without your mind. Your mind is the engine for everything, as even athletes will acknowledge.

However, confidence in your mind cannot arise in a vacuum. You cannot simply say, “I’m great, I’m good, I can be anything I wish to be or do anything I want to do.” Nor does it work to say, “I’ve got to please my parents.” Or, “I’ve got to contribute to society.” Those are perfectly reasonable or worthwhile things to do in many cases, but they are side benefits, at most, not primary drivers of confidence. If a young person makes these things his or her primary motivational drivers then you get — well, you get what these exasperated college psychologists and administrators at Boston College and elsewhere have inherited.

The primary driver of confidence is reason. Or thinking. Using the noncontradictory identification of logic to take the information provided by your senses and integrating them into knowledge of which you can be confident. (Thank you Aristotle and, centuries later, Ayn Rand, for those metaphysically and intellectually game-changing points.)

When you’re confident about the knowledge in your mind and how it got there, then you’re less likely to suffer from panic, self-loathing, defensiveness, entitled brattiness and all the other things college psychologists and professors are starting to see, apparently in unprecedented numbers.

Confidence in your mind implies and requires a confidence in reason. This might sound obvious. But young adults are coming out of families and schools with an idea that their feelings, preferences, wants, wishes and desires trump everything. They seem to be telling their teachers, “This displeases me. Do what I feel I want — and now! Please…I’m scared to death.”

College teachers and psychologists focus on the lack of resilience in students. Resilience is probably another way of saying, “grit.” Resilience has to do with overcoming adversity, even if the “adversity” is nothing more than the normal and reasonable rigors of a college education.

As I wrote elsewhere in an article on resilience:

The simple fact is that people have choices and can exercise them. They can see self-defeating behavior for what it is, and recognize that people do not have to act this way.

Look to your strengths, not your mistakes. Find opportunities in the struggles you face. Don’t deny unpleasant things, but don’t let them rule you either. It’s never too late: People make comebacks in all stages of life. You can frown and decide, “I’ve peaked. I’m too old!” Or, you can adopt a self-affirming attitude like, “It’s a new phase. What can I do now that I didn’t do before? What strengths did I show in the past that I can use now?”

Instead of getting caught up in pointing the finger of blame, maybe the thing to do is start treating young people as if they have the proper tools for coping, thinking, and learning in life. Anything accomplished in life — widely acclaimed or something simple in daily life — is accomplished only by reason and thought.

Reason and thought are the means by which you earn the right to say, “Yes, I can do this, if I really set my mind to it.” Feelings and artificial or external soothing will not get you there. Aren’t the dominant psychological trends observed at today’s colleges evidence enough of this fact?

Instead of giving in to the fears of college students, administrators and professors should be showing them, “You can do it. You have the mind to figure it out. Start using it.”

It’s crucial that parents back them up. And this should have started way back in early childhood and early school years. Better late than never.



Citations and data from PsychologyToday.com, “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges,” 9/22/15, by Peter Gray, Ph.D.


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