Incoming freshmen, particularly women, are stressed out and students’ self-ratings of emotional health dropped to a record 25-year low in 2010. Only 45% of female freshmen perceive that their emotional health is above average; the figure is close to 60% for men. These are among the findings of a survey called The American Freshman: National Norms. The survey, involving more than 200,000 incoming, full-time students, was recently published by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies as part of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP).
These observations have caught the attention of ABC News, the New York Times, and Time magazine. Some are questioning the wording of the study, which asks students to compare themselves to their peers. Such surveys often result in The Lake Wobegon effect, with a vast majority of persons reporting themselves as being above-average. Still, the trend over the last 25 years is alarming. As Maia Szalavitz of Time magazine reports:
A quarter century ago, nearly 70% of freshmen put themselves in the top 10% of mentally stable people in their class; today only 52% rate themselves that highly, down 3 points since last year.
However, the UCLA study also reports that:
While students’ perceived emotional health took a downturn, their drive to achieve and their academic abilities are trending upward. More students than ever before (71.2 percent) rated their academic abilities as “above average” or in the “highest 10 percent,” and 75.8 percent rated their drive to achieve in the same terms. Often considered positive traits, high levels of drive to achieve and academic ability could also contribute to students’ feelings of stress, said John H. Pryor, lead author of the report and director of CIRP.
It makes sense that it would. As Pryor notes, “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.”
Other possible origins suggested by the authors include the economic downturn, the perception that a college degree can’t guarantee someone a well-paying job, and a sense that one won’t be as successful or financially well off as his or her parents. Not surprisingly, pre-college stress is also at an all-time high.