Are We Losing a Generation to Drinking and Debt?

Now that the students have vacated for their summer break, can we have an adult conversation? Higher education is in the middle of a crisis, imperiling an entire generation. It has many apparent causes, but really only one. Not every high school graduate is ready to be treated as an adult. The systems of support and protection that have grown or been built around them require modesty and self-reflection — traits not always associated with teenagers.

Camille Paglia wrote in Time Magazine this spring that we should lower the drinking age to 18 to bring the college drinking culture out of the shadows. Washington Post columnist George Will callously wrote last week that the so-called campus rape epidemic is neither surprising nor undeserved. The compassionate response is surely between these two posts, but finding it will require frank discussions.

Paglia points to European cultures where alcohol isn’t conjoined to teenage rebellion. She reasons that any 18-year-old who can die in a military uniform should also be allowed to drink alcohol while contemplating that. Her argument makes sense until you consider that such cultural trends are made up of millions of individuals’ lives.

My sons’ first pediatrician once sympathized with our frustrations with parenting. He probably overdid it when he said that he wished “children were like pancakes. You should be able to throw out the first ones.” I don’t know whether the good doctor came to work drunk that day or what. I’m sure we all agree that children are not as disposable as pancakes.

Will argues that a culture of entitlement and political correctness has led to an addictive victimhood. Earning respect, in his view, has been deemed difficult — and so beyond the reach — of young people. It’s easier to blame others for what happens to you. Reactions to his column would have been less severe if he had simply insisted that this generation stay off his lawn.

Both Will and Paglia agree that young people seem unable to cope with their freedoms. Our recent imbroglio concerning three male basketball players and a freshman co-ed demonstrates that power is being wielded by those unable or unwilling to weigh all the consequences.

If you believe that exchange was exceptional, I would invite you to visit the 18th Avenue Safeway on a Thursday or Friday afternoon. Listen to the checkout-line banter between the beer-toting students.

Drunkenness has become a rite, but one without a passage.

Drinking and debauchery may seem only like bad weekend choices, except decisions and debt lead to delayed development.

Not very long ago, students received guidance from high school counselors, faculty advisors, and attentive parents. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) disassembled that network. The 1974 law’s intent was to protect students’ privacy, but it’s also shielded college faculty and campus administrators from difficult conversations with concerned parents.

Young people have been left to navigate very adult waters with a still-developing set of emotional, social and cognitive paddles. No wonder they drink.

The average college graduate is leaving school with over $30,000 in debt, often at rates that cannot be renegotiated. Graduate students commonly accumulate $100,000 mortgaged against their future. Bankruptcy offers no protection from most student loan indebtedness. Many young people are altering family or career plans by prioritizing debt reduction.

I’m sorry, but I have to ask. Has this generation internalized the doctor’s pancake metaphor? Are they throwing away their future with an unmarketable degree, social scars from excessive partying, and massive debt?

We have an attractive and inventive university here, so we can push ourselves from difficult discussions to difficult actions. Deans can reward professors who teach popular and important classes on Friday mornings, giving students an academic reason to skip “Thirsty Thursday” specials at local bars.

Faculty advisors can be given new tools and proper incentives to assist students with whatever struggles they face. Our admission packet can include a durable power of attorney form, allowing parents to pierce the FERPA shield and access their child’s academic and financial records.

Nothing less than a complete turnaround will suffice. In pancake parlance, it’s time to flip what’s on the griddle.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.