First-Year College Students Stressed, but Optimistic, Survey Finds

Filed under: In The News, Research Reveals: Teens

College students are facing more pressures than ever before, but they still have positive thoughts about the experience. Credit: Getty

The first year of college should be a time for exploring new-found freedoms, discovering passions and sowing a few wild oats. But, increasingly, college freshmen are finding the experience overwhelming and stressful.

Today's first-year students at U.S. colleges are reporting record-low levels of emotional health and more students say they feel overwhelmed even before entering college, according to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) freshman survey, UCLA's annual survey of U.S. students entering four-year colleges and universities.

Only 51.9 percent of first-year students reported their emotional health was in "the highest 10 percent" or "above average" in 2010, which is 3.4 percent lower than the prior year, and the lowest ever since the CIRP study first asked the question in 1985 -- when 63.6 percent of students placed themselves in those categories.

Notably, female students were far less likely to report high levels of emotional health than males (45.9 percent vs. 59.1 percent) and were more than twice as likely to feel frequently overwhelmed by the work they had to do as high school seniors, researchers found.

Yet, while students' emotional health has taken a turn for the worse, more students than ever before give high ratings to their academic ability and drive to achieve. But, while these are both considered positive traits and potential indicators of success in society and by college admissions officers, they may also be contributing to the decrease in emotional health and increase in feelings of stress, lead author John H. Pryor says in a press release.

"Stress is a major concern when dealing with college students," he says. "If students are arriving in college already overwhelmed and with lower reserves of emotional health, faculty, deans and administrators should expect to see more consequences of stress, such as higher levels of poor judgment around time management, alcohol consumption and academic motivation."

Marcus Hotaling, chairman of mental health for the American College Health Association, tells the Huffington Post he's not surprised by the findings. He says in 1985, many students with mental health issues were not able to get into college, but today they can, due to improved medications, better treatments and reduced stigmas.

"Students are more attuned to who they are, what they're dealing with, and that there's help out there," Hotaling tells the website.

Notably, more students than ever before report they expect to seek personal counseling in college, with nearly one in 10 saying they will do so.

But even with the increased pressures and emotional health issues, Pryor says this year's freshmen are still really optimistic about the college experience and record high numbers believe their college degree will help increase their earning power.

"... Despite all the various hopes, fears and determinations of the class entering college in 2010, optimism about their college education soars, with 57.6 percent believing there is a 'very good chance' that they will be satisfied with college, the highest this figure has been in 28 years, since 1982," he says in the release.

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