Tamar Lewin’s New York Times article, “Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshman,” describes some reasons why college freshmen are reporting the lowest level of emotional health since the survey of this statistic began 25 years ago. According to the article, various university counselors and other researchers attribute this reported drop in emotional health to the economic downturn. Although this article was written in 2011, the idea that today’s college students’ emotional health is linked to difficult economic times still rings true in 2013. The idea that this stress begins in high school with especial pressure in the senior year also has not changed. The gender gap in emotional health seems harder to explain or understand. However, altogether the indicators from college counselors and researchers that Lewin points out appear to describe a reasonable picture of what college life is like for freshman today; it bears thinking about and what can be done to make things better for students.
Difficult economic times appear to be continuing to plague college students. As Van Brunt, the director of counseling at Western Kentucky University says, students “look at their loans and wonder if there will be a career waiting for them on the other side” (Lewin). Therefore, instead of beginning college life with a thrilling sense of positive personal and intellectual growth, students today wonder will they be able to survive even with a degree? Will they be able to support a spouse and children? Will they be able to help their own parents if necessary? In the past, the attitude was probably, “Yes, I can do those things if I work hard enough.” Today, students arrive with the idea that even if they work very hard, it still may not be good enough. With many jobless parents forcing students to take out oppressive loans, there is no sense of starting life fresh as an adult, but a sense of coming into it already chained to a future of debt and uncertainty. From these factors, it is easy to see why so many students report below average emotional health. It’s hard to keep positive with so many economic pressures and so little hope.
The idea that the stress begins in high school is unsurprising. High school students are usually very aware of their parents’ circumstances. If one or both parents become unemployed, there is less chance that they will be able to assist with college tuition, fees, housing, and the many expenses being a student today requires. It may also weigh on high school students that their limited financial means will also limit what schools they can attend. Also, with more and more students needing financial aid in order to attend school, the competition for scholarships is stiffer than ever before. Many students feel the need to please their parents, and by the time senior year ends, they are already burnt out by years of rigorous standardized exams, extracurricular activities, social expectations, and in some cases already helping to support their own families with jobs. Rather than an exciting leap into the future, college may seem like just another high hurdle in life to leap over. All of this can lead to lower emotional health as a college freshman.
Lewin’s article says that “18 percent of the men . . . compared with 39 percent of the women” reported feeling overwhelmed frequently. Although U.C.L.A. professor Linda Sax explains that part of this can be related to leisure activities, with men tending to choose exercise-related activities which relieve stress, women tend to do things like volunteer which actually adds stress (Lewin). Additionally, it is well-known that women tend to be more likely to express their feelings including reporting negative feelings, whereas men tend to keep things including negative feelings to themselves. It seems from Professor Sax’s theories as well as this well-known factor, it may actually be true that men are underreporting their emotional distress. However, these factors should be very interesting for college counselors to look at when they consider what other factors beyond economics are affecting students’ emotional health.
Overall, it seems undisputable that because of the economy, high school pressures, and gender expectations, college freshmen are at a disadvantage emotional-health-wise compared to students of past decades. Although college counselors, professors, and administrators may not be able to change the economy to make it more suitable for students’ emotional health, the example of exercise promoting well-being can be one area in which schools offer students more opportunities in order to be able to have a better experience throughout their college careers. It is factors like this that can be changed by college faculty and students alike that people should focus on, because good emotional health leads to better overall health as well as success in academics.
Lewin, Tamar. “Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshman.” The New York Times, 26 Jan. 2011. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/27/education/