RJ: The latest national Higher Education Research Institute/UCLA study finds that incoming first-year college students in America rate their emotional health at the lowest point since the question was first asked 25 years ago. Many high school seniors feel depressed and overwhelmed. Do these findings surprise you?
President Mark G. Yudof, University of California system: No. In recent years, students have been dealing with a great deal of stress, not only the normal stress of competitive admissions, but also financial stress. They worry about Mom or Dad losing their jobs, foreclosure on their homes, and their own job prospects in a tight market. Students are not immune from the financial pressures affecting the whole of society. Universities are not islands.
Also, the ratio of high school students to guidance counselors has soared, at least in California, given budget cutbacks. Getting quality counseling is difficult—and a likely contributing factor.
How can undergrads reduce stress?
It’s important for students to make time for their favorite activities at school—to find that balance between social life and book life. Friendships are vital. I recommend seeking out students with common interests
by getting involved in a social group, such as a club, a Hillel, a fraternity, or an intramural sport team. Students who do so tend to be more content, while those who remain isolated tend to become
alienated and miserable.
When students are having problems at school, I advise them not to try to go it alone. Don’t bottle up your anxieties—it’s more likely to lead to things going awry. Phone a high school friend, Mom or Dad, a cousin, Grandma, someone you like in your residence hall. And don’t make hasty decisions, like electing to drop out. Look at the bigger picture. If you have a scholarship to UCLA, and eight weeks later you want to just give up, ten years from now you may rue the day you made that call as an 18- or 19-year-old.
How well are Jewish students handling the stress?
I find them enormously resilient. Some people treat them as if they’re so fragile. Maybe some are, but the vast majority know how to stand up for themselves and think for themselves, such as when they defend against antisemitic or anti-Israel views on campus.
According to a recent report, 63% of student borrowers who started paying their loans in 2005 could not fully pay them back on time. Should today’s students try to avoid taking loans?
No. Unlike buying a new car, which is a depreciating asset, the value of a college education appreciates. College graduates tend to have more stable employment, higher average incomes, and better health. Therefore, borrowing prudently to complete your degree will pay off many times over in your lifetime. If you’re a student with a semester or so to go who’s considering dropping out because you cannot afford the tuition, you’re much better off getting a low-interest federal loan and completing your degree. Later you can figure out how to pay it back, even if you need to restructure or push out the repayment timeline at some point. This is a much better alternative than putting off your education, because it may be very hard to pick up those credits later in life, when you may have dependents and a mortgage.
In 2010, a record 72.7% of freshmen agreed with the statement: “The chief benefit of college is that it increases one’s earning power.” Do you agree with that statement?
My hope is that 10 years from now, if I ask those same students, "What did you get out of college?" they’ll be able to see the larger picture and say, “Yes, my degree pushed me along in my career, but I’ll never forget my Russian history course,” or “I still read the poems of Yehuda Halevi.” College exposes us to ideas, knowledge, cultures, and experiences we could not have otherwise. For many of us, it facilitates lifelong friendships and opens doors that forever change the directions of our lives.
Does your being Jewish influence you as a university president?
I believe being Jewish gives me an almost natural empathy toward those who are marginalized or feel alienated from the larger culture. I cannot say I can feel all the pain of an African American student who encounters racism, but I think I do understand what it’s like to be in the minority and to have to overcome barriers as a result. In lectures to Jewish audiences, I sometimes say, “I wish I could protect you from groups that speak out against Israel or think Jewish people are bad people. Fortunately we are well protected by the First Amendment.”
As a Jew, I also deeply value education—in effect, living the understanding that Jews are the “People of the Book.” At every level, education provides answers and opens doors, and as a society we neglect it at
our own peril.