The nation’s vast postsecondary education system exists in large part to supply the workforce necessary to sustain economic growth and create broad-based prosperity. What happens when a key component of that system is abruptly scaled back or eliminated?
We are about to find out in the case of extracurricular activities and other social traditions on college campuses. Early indications are not encouraging.
For well over a century, activities such as sports, clubs, and fraternities and sororities have been staples of college life. So much so in fact, that applicants and their parents now routinely inquire about what colleges and universities offer students beyond the classroom.
Social pursuits of this sort are more than mere diversions. Research indicates that extracurricular activities contribute to students’ maturation, both emotionally and intellectually. Specifically, participation in structured activities is associated with improved academic performance, time-management and organizational skills, and self-confidence. In the case of sports, students learn teamwork. Social networks gained through such experiences can last a lifetime.
Informal socializing for its own sake has benefits as well, fostering a sense of connection and belonging.
Extracurricular activities, then, clearly serve the mission of colleges and universities to turn out capable and productive adults.
With the coronavirus pandemic upending campus operations nationwide, millions of college students are now being deprived of these activities. Sports and performing arts seasons have been postponed or canceled outright, socializing has been strongly discouraged, and in many instances online instruction has supplanted the lecture hall. For a large number of students, having exceedingly limited interaction with their peers is now the norm.
The result? Growing isolation and anxiety, as shown in a number of recent studies. For example, the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium reports that about one-third of undergraduate, graduate, and professional school students suffer from depression, anxiety, or both, a higher rate than in years past. And according to Chegg.org, 58 percent of college students surveyed said they were “moderately,” “very,” or “extremely” worried about their own mental health.
While it would be a stretch to attribute all of this to the curtailment of college extracurricular activities, I have to believe it is a strong contributing factor.
To be absolutely clear, I am not faulting college and university administrators for pursuing any particular policy that they feel will best serve the health and safety of their students and campus communities. I would, however, like to underscore the larger implications of college lockdowns for all of us.
In denuding the traditional college experience of all but academic essentials, are we failing today’s students? Just as importantly, are we undermining the ability of colleges to prepare these students to lead tomorrow’s workforce?
Students, please know there are campus and community resources to help you through this difficult time.