Kansas College Students Can Ace Tests, But They Need Help 'Adulting'

Nov 11, 2019

MANHATTAN, Kansas — Millennials get blamed for killing off sports, drinks and entire industries. Those millennials — and their Gen Z successors — have also given rise to a new word: adulting.

Aging folks from the baby boom or Generation X enjoy ridiculing today's college students when those younger people can't change a tire or wash their clothes without turning to Mom or Dad.

But educators say students privileged enough to go to college and who somehow avoided learning when to change their oil also grew up under a mountain of academic pressure. All that drilling for college entrance exams and robust GPAs left them book-smart — and less life-savvy.

So Kansas State University and other colleges have turned to adulting workshops. The noncredit classes aim to teach students the practical skills that don’t come up in ordinary classrooms.

Mental health advocates hope the workshops can also temper the stress caused by academic pressure and a lack of knowhow about living beyond the reach of hovering parents.

Curbing home economics

Adulting lessons used to go by another well-known name: home economics. Those classes taught cooking, sewing, budgeting and other practical skills.

But long before adulting classes took over, home economics got rebranded. To shred the house-wife-in-training sensibility, many of the classes were relabeled as “family and consumer science” in the 1990s.

Their popularity declined anyway. In 2012, fewer than 3.5 million students were taking FCS classes, a 38% drop over a decade. FCS teachers are in short supply.

And two decades of shifting education policies — starting with the No Child Left Behind Act — have caused schools to focus on a narrow set of often-tested subjects.

“It’s not considered to be a core area, and so it’s easier to say, ‘maybe we don’t need this,’” said Duane Whitbeck, the chair of Family and Consumer Sciences at Pittsburg State University.

That emphasis on a limited number of subjects and the pressure to perform well in them has left today’s college students feeling unready for challenges not found on a Scantron test.

“I feel like I was ill-prepared for life in general,” said Ashley Fox, a K-State student.

Enter adulting

Some colleges want to fill in those missing life skills with free, noncredit workshops they often call “Adulting 101.”

Wichita State University offered one on budgeting. The University of Nebraska-Kearney’s version touches on tax preparation. A University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill workshop focuses on building credit.

K-State offers a series of workshops. The school’s lessons include car maintenance, food safety and conflict resolution for dealing with that roommate who expects you to do all the toilet scrubbing.

Student dietitians at Kansas State University lead an adulting workshop on food safety.
Credit Stephan Bisaha / Kansas News Service

Students working with the university’s health center organized the workshops. They were interested because they felt they had few other opportunities to pick up these skills.

“We don’t have classes on how to change a tire at school,” said Frankie Skinner, a student at K-State who helped create the adulting workshops. “We lack knowledge of just basic adulting.”

Adulting 101: more than Home Economics 2.0

Educators hope even a lesson on oil changes does more than teach students about car maintenance. They're trying to build sturdier adults in the context of what they describe as a mental health crisis.

Mental health treatment for college students went from 19% to 34% between 2007 and 2017. Students and educators point to an unprecedented amount of academic expectations leaving students exhausted and stressed.

“In high school, I felt really pressured to take a lot of college classes to succeed because there was a huge race for valedictorian and being top of the class,” said K-State student Anna Traynham. “No matter how high your GPA was ... everybody was still stressed. ... You had to be perfect all the time.”

While academic pressure is believed to play a big part in stressing out students, evidence suggests it’s not just high-achieving students feeling the anxiety.

Mental health advocates believe adulting classes can help in two ways: The first is simply preparing already-overwhelmed students to deal with life’s pitfalls. A flat tire is less stressful when you know where to find the tire iron.

“These basic problem-solving life skills are being brushed under the rug,” said Megan Katt, a health educator at K-State. “Instead, we’re just drilling all this academic work into their head.”

The second idea deals with another word that’s become popular on campus — resilience.

That ability to bounce back from challenges can mean the difference between working through a stressful event and spiraling into a breakdown.

And educators believe today’s students are less resilient than previous generations.

“When we’re not given the tools to solve problems, we are not able to be resilient,” said Megan Katt, who helped create the K-state’s adulting workshops.

Mental health advocates say there are merits to both adulting and workshops specifically aimed at building resiliency.

But Laura Horne, chief program officer at the mental advocacy organization Active Minds, warns that these are just short-term solutions. Addressing the college mental health crisis takes changing the culture of campus so that more staff and students feel comfortable talking about mental health issues.

“It’s a long game,” Horne said. “This is really difficult work to do, but it is … worth doing.”

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

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