College freshmen's stress levels intensifying

Feb 1 2011 - 10:38am

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- That first year of college has always been tough. But tight economic times have made it even harder.

Pressures to pay for college and choose studies that will produce good jobs have stressed this year's college freshmen at unprecedented levels.

In a new report, college freshmen rated their emotional health at the lowest level in the 25 years of the survey.

The data, published by the University of California, Los Angeles, mirrored observations of some high school and college counselors.

"In the last couple of years of the recession, students' parents are more stressed, and the natural idealism and optimism in the young adult population has been eroded," said Rick Hanson, director of student counseling at Rockhurst University and a past president of the American College Counseling Association.

Lauren Sander, a Rockhurst freshman, agreed that new college students were feeling a lot of stress, especially if they didn't have good coping skills.

"Some may freak out way more than they should while they're getting used to how college works and how their classes are going," Sander said.

Although there's not a wholesale "freak-out" occurring on campuses, it's clear that economic pressures are piling on top of the normal life transitions teens experience.

"Freshmen and their parents are more aware of the student loan debt they are taking on, and therefore more anxious about money," said Barbara Cooke, lead counselor at Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods and author of "Parent's Guide to College and Careers."

"Students and parents are understandably worried about the long-term consumer debt they are taking on for college and how, in a weak job market, the student will be able to repay that debt," she said.

The national evaluation of student stress, quantified in "The American Freshman" report from UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, said groundwork was laid in the senior year of high school as well as in the economy at large.

The report charted an uptick in the number of students who said they were "overwhelmed by all I had to do" in their last year of high school, when they juggled extracurricular activities, academics and college admissions.

"They're not naive," David Burke, director of college counseling at Pembroke Hill, said of high school seniors. "They hear and see what's going on in this economy. They see parents losing jobs. They hear they'll have five careers in their lifetimes. They hear about the onrush of talent from China and India.

"Maybe they have older siblings who graduated from college in the last year or two who haven't found jobs they consider appropriate. Then there's tremendous stress about picking an affordable school and being away from home for the first time."

At Missouri State University in Springfield, freshman Kelly Jeffries, a graduate of Park Hill South High School, said she was coping with the stress of trying "to find something to do to make money in the future."

Her interest in elementary education may not be what she ends up pursuing, depending on the economy. Meanwhile, Jeffries said, "time management and getting good grades are the top stressors" among her fellow students.

To cope, Jeffries said, she has found herself going home on the weekends "a lot more than I probably should."

The coping alternative she sees on campus is students partying hard on the weekends as a relief mechanism.

The UCLA report noted that students who reported more stress also described more alcohol use.

At Rockhurst, Hanson said he more often saw some freshmen struggling to hold jobs and make decent grades.

"A big factor we've watched over the last couple of years is that they're working more hours -- 15 to 30 hours a week -- to help pay for school, and particularly as freshmen they don't understand the academic demands of college," Hanson said. "They quickly feel overwhelmed."

The UCLA study reached 201,818 freshmen at 279 four-year colleges around the country. Its results are said to be statistically representative of the nation's 1.5 million first-year, full-time students.

"Stress is a major concern when dealing with college students," said John H. Pryor, lead author of the UCLA report. "If students are arriving in college already overwhelmed and with lower reserves of emotional health, (we) should expect to see more consequences of stress, such as higher levels of poor judgment around time management, alcohol consumption and academic motivation."

At Maple Woods, Cooke said she was seeing more entering students who were academically unprepared for college.

"Any time you're in a position where you get into it and don't have the skills to be successful, it's stressful," Cooke said.

Also, counselors around the country say more freshmen have learning disabilities or mental health issues. Sometimes it's difficult for them to manage their medications, let alone their lifestyle changes.

And many new enrollees struggle to get enough sleep, eat nutritious diets and engage in good study habits -- some of which they may never have learned in the first place.

To top it off, Hanson said, the high cost of college pushes many students to sign up for 18 academic hours -- which top-notch students with good study habits may be able to handle but which spell trouble for midlevel or struggling students.

"They're in over their heads before they know it, and they don't have the skills to handle it," he said of some students.

Cooke noted that general social trends, which have made it more acceptable to talk about mental health, may also have contributed to the self-reported findings of poorer mental health among freshmen.

"There may not be as much of an element of increase in distress as they're more open and honest in talking about mental issues," she suggested.


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