Everyone's Developmentally Delayed, Starting With Us

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

August 14, 2011

Throughout my almost 20 years as a college psychotherapist and mental-health administrator, I generally adopted an analytical approach to therapy. When I first began counseling students, I wanted to "cure" them of their neuroses, or at least analyze them into functioning better. Initially, this seemed effective, because there were plenty of students who exhibited symptoms of bona fide psychiatric diagnoses.

After a couple of years in my clinical comfort zone, though, I began to feel I was missing something. As my caseload increased, the types of students referred to me began to change. Many would attend a few sessions and leave counseling without informing me of their intent. It was a bit vexing because things always seemed to get off to a good start. I struggled with this for several months until I had an epiphany while lecturing in my then-new adolescent-development class. I was introducing the class to the concept of "asynchrony" in human development, and the idea I was teaching them finally pierced my thick Freudian skull. Eureka! Those counseling clients, and virtually all students who were having difficulty in college, seemed to have one thing in common: They were out of sync with their own development.

One by one I reviewed cases and saw the same pattern—one or more areas of developmental delay interfering with college success. Some students were academically prepared for college, but not socially. They were either oversocializing to make up for lost time, or they would study excessively to the neglect of their social development. Either way, several ended up leaving college or transferring because they failed academically, or felt isolated and lonely.

Others were socially adept but were unprepared cognitively. They did well academically in high school with more supervision and, of course, with the recent emphasis on rote learning. However, when they were expected to think critically or independently, they were stymied. They, as well as the others, belonged to a generation that arrived at college with beliefs that were inculcated in the polarized, treacherous political and cultural minefields of recent decades. Whether they leaned left or right, they didn't trust our institution.

Perhaps most frequently, I saw students who had serious delays in emotional development. Virtually anything that caused stress disoriented them, and they quickly descended into pre-meltdown conditions. Academic work was the last thing on their minds. They lit up cell towers talking to and texting parents and peers, and they demanded unlimited visits to the counseling center. They would restabilize, often of their own accord, but only long enough to discover how far behind they were in class work. Of course, that information would set off another crisis of hysteria, dropped courses, impending lost scholarships, and so on.

Once I recognized these patterns, I considered possible remedies with unbridled enthusiasm. This occurred around the same time that "retention" was becoming the new buzzword on campuses. So it seemed to me that colleges would welcome any efforts to help students persist to graduation. Once administrators and student-affairs professionals realized the significance of my discoveries, they would embrace this developmental model posthaste. That's when I discovered that higher education itself was—and is—developmentally delayed.

Many, if not most, faculty members and those who employ them still seem to believe their primary mission is to disseminate "expert" information. Colleges hire professors and instructors who have no pedagogical education or training and who are often profoundly lacking in knowledge of human development as well. Ironically, the further one advances in the academic hierarchy, the less one is expected to know about teaching and those who are taught. It becomes easy to blame parents, or primary and secondary education, and to conclude that college is not for everyone and a degree will be worthless if just anybody can get one.

There is some truth to this; a college degree should reflect academic excellence and the self-discipline it takes to succeed in a long-term, complex endeavor. Paradoxically, though, the students who possess these attributes at the time of their initial enrollment are sometimes the least in need of the services that faculty could provide. These well-prepared new scholars could excel with minimal guidance and mentoring. The less prepared need the time and attention of highly skilled teachers who know how to teach them how to learn.

I don't believe most educators are deliberately trying to avoid the demands of our changing institutions. I think we are just lagging behind our social progress as usual, and many lack the training to make this paradigm shift. We have chosen to make college more inclusive, but we haven't yet developed the protocols to assess new students and help them get up to speed quickly. It is unrealistic to believe that most students whose parents did not go to college, those with learning disabilities or mental disorders, and Gen Y students (a whole article or book in itself) could matriculate without focused support.

In just a few decades we have morphed from in loco parentis to sink or swim. This seemed to work adequately until we decided as a society that college was essential for every young person to thrive in a highly competitive, postmillennial socioeconomic environment. We have opened the floodgates; this is both a cause for celebration and a compelling reason to know the level of preparedness of each student as he or she enters the system.

The first day students enter college, many are in the throes of a developmental crisis. They should be assessed in several areas, including their academic ability, social skills, study skills, vocabulary, general knowledge, work history, and community involvement. The results of these assessments would be used to identify the types of support they will need to succeed. This data and interviews with the student can lead to a learning contract between the student and the institution. Participation should be voluntary, but students who opt out would be required to sign a waiver stating they were informed about any concerns and offered appropriate services. This individualized approach would bolster many students and increase their chances for academic success.

Granted, such an ambitious effort would seem to increase the workload for faculty and staff; no doubt, establishing such a program would take time and effort. It would also require a total buy-in from the administration, faculty, and staff. In a relatively short time, however, they would start to notice welcome differences in their daily activity. Professors would spend less time grading substandard papers. Students would participate in class discussions with more intellectual curiosity and civility. Student-affairs personnel would spend less time on discipline and more time on the holistic positive growth of students. Attrition would decrease, and we could stop maintaining the illusion that we are working hard on retention.

For those who might think I'm discounting their efforts at retention, I want to be clear: It is the concept itself that's misguided. When we put resources into students after problems surface, we take resources away from other students who may be slipping through the cracks. For every student we save, we may lose a couple more. The word "retention" is institution-centered instead of student-centered. The premise was that the college would retain the students rather than the students choosing to stay in the college because of their internalized goals and actions. By becoming partners with students on the front end, we decrease the odds that they will later be unable to persist.

Decades upon decades of scientific inquiry into human development tells us that people stay in situations when they feel safe, empowered, and validated. They leave when they feel threatened, inadequate, and frustrated. We don't need more research; we need to move from "sink or swim" to being more vigilant lifeguards for our students.


Tom Bissonette is a retired staff member and adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.