Teaching and Helping College Students with Personal Problems during Tough Economic Times Marcia J. Rossi

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Perspectives in Learning: A Journal of the College of Education & Health Professions   Columbus State University
Volume 12, Issue 1, Spring 2011

Teaching and Helping College Students with Personal Problems
during Tough Economic Times

Marcia J. Rossi
Alabama State University
The student population today may be facing increased need for support services, due to a wide
variety of potential personal problems. Reasons for this include the increased number of students
in college who have learning disabilities or other disabilities, the economic downturn of 2008
driving older students to pursue college degrees, and the number of veterans in school who are
returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Faculty members and academic advisors may be
approached by students who are experiencing personal problems, and may not know how to offer
help. Suggestions for helping and teaching such students are offered; these include helping
students to identify the nature of the problem and to find resources, as well as listening to and
providing support for them while maintaining high standards of performance and academic
integrity. Faculty members are cautioned against providing services for which they are not
qualified, and to understand their own strengths and limitations in helping.

       The number of students enrolling in                   (e.g., Johnson et al., 2008; Reiff, 1997;
college, or attempting to enroll in college                  Rubush, 2010), many students fail to ask for
has been steadily increasing in past years. In               help, even when they need it the most (Mier,
October 2009, the number of high school                      Boone & Shropshire, 2009). The purpose of
graduates attending colleges or universities                 this article is to describe the factors that
was 70.1%, an all-time high (U.S.                            have led to the increased need for faculty
Department of Labor, 2009). Much of this                     intervention in student personal problems,
increase is due to the economic situation                    discuss various types of problems faced by
faced by many families today, especially                     students, and provide strategies for faculty
after the economic downturn of 2008. As a                    to help teach and assist students who may
result, many students may face significant                   be experiencing such problems.
personal problems that challenge their
abilities to successfully negotiate a college                  Reasons Students Need Assistance from
degree program (Johnson, Zascavage &                                     Instructors/Advisors
Gerber, 2008; Rubush, 2010).                                        Problems in adapting to college have
       Numerous studies support the                          always existed for new students, especially
beneficial aspects of a mentoring                            traditional-aged students, who experience
relationship between students and faculty or                 freedoms and responsibilities beyond those
other adult for both career and personal                     of high school years. Having less
issues (e.g., Cokley, 2000; Hickson, 2002;                   supervision from parents and learning how
Jacobi, 1991; Packard, Walsh & Seidenberg,                   to manage time more effectively, learning
2004). While a number of factors have led to                 how to manage money, relationships, and
an increased probability of students needing                 more rigorous academics are among the
some sort of assistance from faculty to                      many changes and challenges students face
handle personal problems in recent years                     when attending college. These significant


life changes and pressures bring on stress,            projected increased enrollment of 25% more
and with it, corresponding personal                    veterans returning to school in 2011. These
problems of a wide variety of sorts for many           students are often older than traditional
students (Cushman, 2007; Dysen & Rank,                 students, many have families, and some of
2006). Such students may approach faculty              these students have serious mental health
advisors or instructors to request assistance          issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder
in dealing with certain personal problems,             (Rubush, 2010).
but in many cases, they simply struggle and                  Third, since the 1990s, there has been
flounder (Mier et al., 2009).                          an increase in the number of students with
        Not only are there problems for                disabilities who are attempting college
traditional-age college students, but for              (Johnson et al., 2008); this is due in part to
nontraditional students, as well. The college          federal regulations preventing
student population is very different at                discrimination and requiring
present than in the past several decades, due          accommodations for such students. Michael,
to several factors. First, the number of               Dickson, Ryan and Koefer (2010) cite
nontraditional-age students pursuing                   numerous ways students today are less
undergraduate or graduate degrees has risen            prepared than in preceding decades,
sharply. As unemployment rates have risen,             including the increased number of students
many have taken advantage of this time to              who have learning disabilities (Reiff, 1997).
finish a degree, change career focus to                Despite the fact that the severity of
pursue an entirely different degree, or                psychological problems of college students
complete a graduate degree, an enrollment              has increased, many students fail to access
trend seen in other economic crises as well            student support services (Mier et al., 2009).
(Okpala, Hopson & Okpala, 2011). One                   Further, many states are experiencing budget
factor affecting this increase in enrollment is        cuts for education (Johnson et al., 2009) and
the American Recovery and Reinvestment                 such cuts often result in cutbacks and strain
Act (2009) which provided specific funds               on existing support systems for students
for student financial aid. While adult                 with personal problems (Okpala et al.,
learners have historically comprised a large           2011). Therefore, the possibility exists that
number of the students pursuing graduate               an increasing number of students will seek
degrees in education, and who sometimes                out faculty for assistance, or they will need
have specific fears about returning to school          faculty intervention in order to be
(Giczkowski & Allen, 1994), many are                   successful.
currently facing the added burden of
significant economic challenges while trying                Strategies for Helping Students
to juggle home and school. In fact, Okpala et
al. (2011) found that budget cuts                      Identifying Problems
necessitating a four-day college work week                   One of the first things faculty should
have exacerbated difficulties in balancing             do when a student comes to them with a
work and school for many students attending            problem, is to determine the specific
community colleges.                                    problem or problems (Rossi, 2006). Often,
      Second, there are a large number of              what starts out as a conversation on one
veterans returning from the Iraq and                   topic, turns out really to be about another
Afghanistan wars who are enrolled in school            topic, as the conversation progresses, or
and are taking advantage of the 911 GI bill            after specific questioning. While faculty
to finance their educations. There is a                should not pry into students’ personal lives,


they can gently ask questions and more                         As mentioned, individuals of any age
importantly, listen openly, to identify the           may suffer from learning disabilities, may
exact nature of the problem. Student                  not be aware of the learning disabilities, or
personal problems fall into a number of               may be reluctant to inform the instructor of
different categories, including academic              their situations. Students who have been
difficulties, relationship problems (such as          diagnosed with a learning disability or other
between roommates, loved ones, or friends             disability often are eligible for specific
in an organization), family issues, health            accommodations in the college classroom,
issues, career questions/issues, financial            such as being given longer time for taking
difficulties, and problems stemming from              tests and completing assignments. It is
lack of understanding of University policies,         important to provide such accommodations
procedures, and academic life in general.             if the student has documented evidence of
The latter is more likely to be seen in first         such a disability, as such accommodations
generation college students, who are often            are required by the Americans with
naïve about what to expect from college, and          Disability Act and may mean the difference
about how to find help within the institution.        between the student succeeding or failing. If
Such students often feel isolated,                    the student has not been diagnosed but
intimidated, and academically unprepared              seems to show signs of a learning disability,
(Cushman, 2007). Careful listening can help           it is appropriate to have a discussion with
to identify the source of the problem. Davis          that student about his or her performance,
(2010) argued that a small investment in              and, if warranted, provide the student with
understanding the problems of first-                  information about the college’s office of
generation college students and specializing          disability services.
in advising them, can lead to rewards for the                Students with psychological
University in terms of retention, and to an           difficulties also need to be identified to help
improved probability of students’ academic            them succeed and to get the help they need.
success.                                              Students with depression may miss
       Older, nontraditional students often           numerous class days and fall behind in their
have complex schedules with many                      coursework, but they may not have the
responsibilities and complications occurring          motivation to contact the professor to
in their lives (Wagner, 2002). Such                   address the problem. A recent study by
complications may include serving as                  Guthman, Iocin and Konstas (2010) found
caregiver for a relative, while possibly              nearly a 10% increase in the past decade of
serving as parent to young children; these            the percentage of students in college with
complexities can produce considerable stress          moderate to severe depression. If a student
and unexpected situations that compromise             seems to be having psychological
the student’s ability to complete assignments         difficulties that are affecting his or her
on time, to be present during class time, or          academic performance, it is appropriate to
to attend meetings on a class group project.          discuss these concerns with the student.
Some students may find their work                     However, this should always be done within
schedules too demanding (e.g., Okpala et al.,         the context of trying to help the student
2011), or they may struggle financially to            achieve and should not involve prying into
make ends meet. Others may miss class and             confidential information.
fall behind due to sick family members who
require attention.


Making Referrals to Appropriate                        Counseling Center, as well as the local
Resources                                              phone book and Chamber of Commerce can
       In all cases, students should be                be excellent resources for becoming familiar
directed to appropriate resources that are             with local support services both on and off
available to assist with personal problems.            campus.
Many freshmen or first-generation college                    Students who are facing psychological
students receive benefit from special                  difficulties and are clearly distressed should
instruction from a student support office or           be referred to the campus Counseling
student affairs office on campus. They may             Center, local psychologists, or the local
need additional advice from a professor                hospital, especially if the student appears to
regarding how the institution is organized,            be a danger to him or herself or to others.
and what functions different branches of the           While it is appropriate to talk to students and
school serve. Such students, including those           listen to their concerns and problems, it is
who are struggling academically, and those             not appropriate to try to provide advice
who have learning disabilities, may need               about issues for which one is not qualified.
help with study skills, or other issues to help        One should be careful to make needed
them be prepared academically and socially             referrals and, if necessary, offer to make a
for college life (Michael et al., 2010). Some          phone call for the student who may be afraid
may need advice on how to approach their               to do so (Rossi, 2006). Mier et al. (2009)
professors to get additional tutoring from             discussed a program of intervention for
formal tutoring services, or informal                  faculty who are in contact with students who
services from advanced students or graduate            are experiencing personal problems and are
students. In some cases, it may be helpful to          not accessing counseling services. That
contact a department on behalf of the                  program, however, involves specific training
student to request tutoring assistance from            for faculty and involves more systematic
an advanced student, an honor society, or a            large-scale efforts at helping students with
club in the discipline. Reiff (1997) presented         psychological difficulties. If no such
a program of academic advising support for             program exists at an institution, then faculty
at-risk students based upon learning                   may be reluctant to approach students on
disabilities research; this program was based          their own with concerns about emotional or
upon knowledge that those same deficits                mental health issues. In less serious cases,
associated with learning in the classroom              however, often what is needed is simply a
may affect a student’s ability to manage               good listener who helps the student feel
their time effectively and set effective goals.        there is someone who cares and can provide
He also noted that students with disabilities          some needed support.
often have difficulty in serving as their own
advocates.                                             Setting High Expectations, Reasonable
       If a faculty member serves as a student         Policies, and Flexibility
academic advisor or finds themselves                         While student personal problems may
regularly being approached by students                 tempt faculty to relax standards, faculty
wishing to share personal problems or                  should not compromise standards of
seeking assistance, the faculty member may             academic quality and integrity. Faculty
find it helpful to become aware of resources           should, however, be mindful of their
both within the University and in the                  primary responsibility to teach students and
surrounding community. The Student                     help them succeed. By setting reasonable
Affairs Office, Dean’s Office, and                     policies and building in appropriate


flexibility when needed, faculty can ensure                              Conclusion
that they are fulfilling obligations to their          As a professor, one may find dealing with
students. As an example, many faculty                  student personal problems and making
members have high expectations for                     allowances for different circumstances of
students to submit assignments in a timely             students to be daunting. If so, confidentially
manner. High standards, however, are not               seeking out advice from other colleagues on
equivalent to inflexibility. As noted                  how to handle situations can prove helpful.
previously, times have significantly                   Faculty members should be aware of and
changed, and there may be legitimate                   follow their institution’s policies and
reasons students submit assignments late or            regulations regarding making various
miss class. Adopting a reasonable but fair             accommodations for students and helping
policy on late assignments can help to                 students, especially in serious, potentially
ensure that students have the opportunity to           life-threatening situations. Faculty should
demonstrate their knowledge while still                also be aware of their own personal limits
following important rules and guidelines and           for working with students. For example, not
being held accountable. For example, one               every faculty member is comfortable with
may wish to provide some penalty for those             talking about personal issues; others find
late assignments that do not warrant an                that handling numerous late assignments or
official excuse, but still allow the student to        excused absences to be too time-consuming.
submit the assignment within a reasonable              If faculty are not comfortable with
timeframe. Those faculty members who                   discussing personal problems, they should
have experience with a wide variety of                 acknowledge this and make necessary
students might consider this a fair option.            referrals. Finally, faculty should set policies
Numerous research studies attest to the                that are flexible and fair and take into
importance of a caring and fair attitude in            account the different demands placed on
students’ perceptions of effective teachers            students and themselves. Following these
(e.g., Omoregie, 2007; Teven, 2001.)                   guidelines will help to protect both the
       As another example, recognizing that            faculty and the students’ best interests
students may have difficulty managing                  during these difficult times.
complex schedules and, thus, giving
assignments well in advance of deadlines,
helps to ensure that students will have a                              References
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Marcia Rossi is a Professor of Psychology at
Alabama State University. Her research
interests include methods and techniques to
improve teaching and advising, human
factors issues in training in various systems,
and the application of behavior analysis to
education and social issues.

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