Freedom, college and the unconscious

Going to college is more expensive than ever. The average cost of attending public colleges has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. Given that colleges are so expensive; shouldn’t one expect that college students are more motivated and more dedicated than ever? The answer – surprisingly – is a clear “No.”

The other day, I had a conversation with an ex-student who flunked out after the first year in college. I asked him, “What did you do during your freshman year?” and he answered: “To be honest, I played a lot of video games.” You might think that this is a special case, but it is not.

Students who use their time in college to pursue predominately non-academic activities are not rare. As far as I can tell, they are actually becoming more common. But how is this possible? On the one hand we have a college system that is getting more and more expensive and on the other we have college students who are less and less engaged. How does this fit together? According to our standard economic understanding, consumers should value a commodity more as the price goes up? Why doesn’t this logic apply to colleges?

I think there is an answer to this question, and I think that it is important for parents to be aware of it. Let us go back to the student who decided to pay $16,000 in tuition in order to play video games in his dorm room. I asked him why he made this decision and he told me that he did not know. I think he was speaking the truth. Something was driving him to play video games rather than going to class, but he himself had no idea what it was.

The real story took place in his unconscious. As our conversation continued, he told me that his time in college was the very first time away from home. He came from a wonderful, traditional family, and his parents had been very caring – so caring in fact that they ran his life. They drove him to soccer games, helped him with his homework, paid for tutors, and chose his college. In short they did everything – and everything was simply too much.

When he came to college, his quest for freedom turned into an unconscious quest to get rid of his parents. This is a normal psychological process. Every healthy normal adult experiences such a stage in his life when freedom is understood as a rejection of parental expectations. The problem is timing. This psychological stage should happen before one comes to college, but nowadays it frequently happens later. Many parents have created such a protective and safe environment all the way up to high school that the psychological development of their children is delayed. Childhood is artificially prolonged, and when it comes to success in college, that’s a problem.

The antidote might sound paradoxical: Parents, be careful not to do too much for your children! Young adults need freedom from parents prior to entering college. If the first chance to rebel against parental expectation coincides with the first weeks in college, young college students are prone to irrational decision making which interferes with their ability to take full advantage of the opportunities college has to offer.

The writer is a professor of philosophy at Coastal Carolina University.