Students in higher education are facing an increasingly scary, challenging world. After living through a global pandemic, social unrest, and unprecedented climate change, it is difficult for students to imagine a future that will be made much brighter through achieving a college degree. As a result, higher education is seeing a wave of student apathy — a deep sense of hopelessness and disconnection. This apathy is not only a threat to the future of these students, but to the future of higher education itself.
While we can draw a straight line between the events of recent years and the current downward trend in college enrollment, the true causes and possible solutions for student disengagement are much more complicated. Read on to learn about student apathy — and how colleges and universities can motivate, empower, and reengage their learners.
What is student apathy?
The term “apathy” comes from the Greek word apatheia, which originated from the adjective apathēs, meaning “without feeling.” It may sound harsh to describe student apathy as “student without feeling,” but it’s not so far off from one faculty member’s vivid account of trying to connect with students: “It feels like I’m pouring energy into a void.”
In the 2022 New York Times guest opinion essay “My College Students Are Not OK,” Jonathan Malesic recalls his experience the previous fall teaching writing. Despite the universities where he taught being “very different” socioeconomically, the manifestations of student disengagement were the same: “...[A] third of the students were missing nearly every time, and usually not the same third. Students buried their faces in their laptop screens and let my questions hang in the air unanswered. My classes were small, with nowhere to hide, yet some students openly slept through them.” He writes that, by many metrics, “they performed worse than any students I had encountered in two decades of teaching.”
According to Malesic, while the pandemic could reasonably be seen as exacerbating student disengagement, it was institutions’ continued loosening of standards that was contributing to the ongoing shows of apathy. However, that may not be the full story — at least for those students whose pandemic-inspired apathy had more to do with a changing view of higher education’s importance in their lives.
Recent high school graduate Grayson Hart, for example, was deterred from pursuing higher education by the pandemic, but not for the reasons you may think. “There were a lot of us with the pandemic, we kind of had a do-it-yourself kind of attitude of like, ‘Oh — I can figure this out,’” Hart told the Associated Press. “Why do I want to put in all the money to get a piece of paper that really isn’t going to help with what I’m doing right now?” Instead, Hart is able to focus on his creative passions and support himself by directing a youth theater program in Jackson, Tennessee — all without accruing any student debt.
Why is student apathy so prevalent?
In the past few years alone, students have faced seismic societal shifts resulting in exceptional trauma. The pandemic, political upheaval, economic uncertainty, mental health struggles, and higher educational costs could all contribute to a profound sense of numbness. “Chronic stress (hyperstimulation) can tax the body so much that it becomes exhausted,” writes mental health expert Jim Folk. “As long as the body is exhausted, it can feel as if we have no emotions.”
More evidence of this hyperstimulation and lack of emotion can be found in the 2022 Annual Report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), a network of over 750 college and university counseling centers and supportive organizations. The CCMH uncovered that academic distress remains “much higher” now than in the pre-COVID days, with one of the main challenges for students being “difficulty staying motivated in class.” Their findings also suggested that “trauma continued to increase in 2021-2022.”
More broadly, shrinking attention spans often attributed to the rise of the internet and modern technology could also play a role in student disengagement. Social media and smartphones, with their promise of instant dopamine hits and easily digested, bite-sized content, have seemingly made the ability to commit to deep, sustained focus on mentally challenging tasks harder than ever before. Gloria Mark, Ph.D. and author of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, for example, has revealed through research carried out over the past two decades “that our attention spans are declining, averaging just 47 seconds on any screen.” When considering how numb and overstimulated many students are, it makes sense that they would turn to easy, quick sources of relief over more taxing, tedious academic work.
Another possibility is that students are facing a crisis of meaning. As may be evidenced by the steep decline in humanities majors, college is no longer lauded as a chance to explore fundamental existential questions or personal passions, but rather a box to be checked. Higher education is often seen as the only path towards upward mobility, leaving students to pursue a college degree solely as a means for economic advancement. When postsecondary education is seen as having no other underlying value, it is difficult for students to justify the cost of a college education, especially if they don’t believe they’ll see a return on their investment.
How do we respond to student apathy?
Students face a number of complicated challenges today that can lead to disengagement. But with proper interventions, colleges and universities can fight this (lack of) feeling. Apathetic students may benefit from:
More robust mental health services paired with extracurricular activities.
The CCMH 2022 Annual Report also uncovered that there were “several protective factors” capable of preventing dropouts while alleviating symptoms of mental health issues: “Most notably, when Academic Distress significantly decreased during counseling and students were concurrently participating in an extracurricular activity, they were 51% less likely to withdraw from school.” Institutions can encourage students by making them aware of counseling resources, encouraging their involvement in extracurriculars, and checking in with them individually on their experiences.
Accessible, high-impact learning opportunities.
According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, ample evidence suggests that immersive educational experiences, or high-impact practices (HIPs) — like service learning, undergraduate research, study abroad, and internships — promote deeper learning in students. While many of these opportunities pose financial barriers to participation, some schools provide undergraduate research and volunteer opportunities at no additional cost.
Improved student engagement strategies.
Until HIPs become affordable for all, institutions would do well to focus their efforts on more sophisticated student engagement strategies. The Chronicle of Higher Education writer Beth McMurtrie in “Teaching in an Age of ‘Militant Apathy’” suggests that the right technology may be the solution: “Early-warning systems that track students’ grades and send alerts to advisers, chatbots that answer simple questions quickly and at any hour, and an emphasis on creating a sense of belonging through peer mentoring and success coaching have shown promising results.”
By implementing these strategies, colleges and universities can help reignite students’ passion for learning and start combatting declining enrollment.
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