Research shows college students lack life skills; Scouting can help with that

The BSA’s primary goal is to help young people Be Prepared for life.

A handful of recent studies indicate that’s needed now more than ever.

Hat tip to Mike, a Scouting volunteer in North Carolina, who sent me this story, which indicates that young adults these days are struggling with their mental health, possibly in part because they never learned to be independent as children.

“Today’s 18-year-olds are like the 12-year-olds from a decade ago,” the article says. “They have very little tolerance for conflict and discomfort.”

Hmmm. … I just happen to know of an organization dedicated entirely to challenging kids to solve real-world problems!

Whether it’s Cub Scouting, Scouts BSA, Sea Scouts, Exploring or Venturing, the BSA’s programs are designed to help kids figure things out in a safe environment — before they leave home for the real world! — under the direction of a parent, Scout leader or peer.

The article goes on to link to several other articles and studies – which themselves link to even more studies and articles – that show that today’s young adults need the skills offered in Scouting now more than ever.

It’s a lot to take in, so I’ve broken it down here.

Scouting is problem-solving

I have a very distinct memory of sitting in a high school advanced math class and asking the teacher why it was so important that we learn all these complex equations.

“It’s not the equations themselves that are important,” the teacher kindly explained to us. “It’s the problem-solving skills that it takes to solve the equations that are important.”

I would argue that the same goes for Scouting. It’s not just about learning how to set up a tent in the woods. It’s about learning how to think for yourself, solve problems and find solutions. Even if you never go camping again in your life, these are skills you will use almost every day into college and adulthood.

“A growing body of evidence is beginning to suggest that the problems of ‘adulting’ and mental health in college students may be rooted, at least in part, in modern childhood,” according to this story from a California public radio station. “Research shows that young people are lacking in emotional resilience and independence compared to previous generations.”

Bingo! This is why Scouts BSA troops use the patrol method. A Scout patrol carries out a wide range of tasks that require pooling resources and working together to function successfully in all kinds of circumstances. If they get knocked down, they simply get up again and try harder.

A canoe trip doesn’t just teach kids how to paddle. It teaches them how to handle challenging circumstances. Photo by Blake Ferree

Adulting 101

The problem has gotten so bad that many colleges offer “adulting 101” classes to fill in the gaps of life skills these kids never learned.

At Kansas State University, for example, kids can take classes on personal budgeting (there’s a merit badge for that), car maintenance (we’ve got that covered, too) and getting involved in important community issues (Scouting is perfect for that).

I found other colleges that offer classes in cooking (we got you covered!) and fixing various problems around the house (hello!).

Chentsova Dutton, a professor at Georgetown, hypothesizes that when students have fewer opportunities to practice autonomy, they have less faith in themselves that they can figure out a risky situation.

“My suspicion is that low autonomy seems to translate into low efficacy,” she says. “Low efficacy and a combination of stress is associated with distress.”

People! This is literally exactly why it’s good for kids to participate in a program in which they’re asked to hike 8 miles in a day, set up camp, cook dinner, do the dishes … and then do it all again the next day, all while being supervised by trained adults!

Lessons learned

At one of my son’s first cold-weather Scouts BSA campouts, one of his fellow Scouts was clearly underdressed. While all the other kids had big, heavy winter jackets, this one young man showed up in only a lightweight hoodie.

I watched from a distance as an assistant Scoutmaster sat the young man down to discuss the situation in which he had gotten himself into.

“Why didn’t you bring your winter jacket?” the assistant Scoutmaster asked.

“Because my mom didn’t pack it for me,” said the boy.

“Is your mom the one who’s cold right now?” said the assistant Scoutmaster.

“No,” the boy sheepishly replied.

“Who’s going to pack your gear next time?” said the adult.

“I am,” said the Scout.

Lesson learned, the Scout was able to stay warm all weekend thanks to extra sweaters, pants and mittens donated by his fellow Scouts. Even if he never goes outside in the cold again, he learned the importance of personal responsibility in an uncomfortable situation.

A Scout learns how to start a fire in cold weather. Oh by the way, he’s also learning patience and persistence, two skills we can all use in life. Photo by Brian Payne

A not-so recent trend

I found some articles that are quick to blame the COVID pandemic on college kids not being prepared for life. But I also found this story from 2015 citing many of these same problems, well before the pandemic.

“Our students are no different from what is being reported across the country on the state of late adolescence/early adulthood,” one head of counseling at a university said eight years ago. “There has been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life. Whether we want it or not, these students are bringing their struggles to their teachers and others on campus who deal with students on a day-to-day basis.

“The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the university and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”

I’m just saying … click here to find a Scouting unit near you.

About Aaron Derr 258 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.