Worries and anxieties may not just affect the college experience but also prevent a sizable portion of students from going to college altogether, according to a new survey from education company EAB.
“They have anxieties about their preparedness in all ways,” said Michael Koppenheffer, vice president of Enroll360 marketing and analytics at EAB. “They are concerned about their abilities to thrive in their next chapter."
"Mental Health Challenges and Their Impact on College Readiness" – which involved surveying more than 6,000 high schoolers in September 2023 about mental health and college participation – found that stress and anxiety were what significant percentages of respondents felt regarding college planning.
On the subject of planning for college, almost half of respondents (48%) reported feeling increased anxiety, nerves, and worry about the matter, while a quarter (25%) reported feeling more stress in general.
The other most prominent opinions on college planning that the survey found were indecision (8%); that it was overwhelming (8%); that there wasn’t enough time to do it (8.8%); and that the planning process was complicated or difficult (10%).
“Anxiety and fear make it very difficult for me to plan for college because I overthink every outcome that my life could possibly take,” said one respondent who was quoted in the report. “I feel like college is the biggest decision of my life thus far, and that can be very heavy for a 17-year-old to handle.”
These student concerns over mental health were also found to somewhat carry over into their decisions to even go to college. According to the survey, more than a quarter of respondents (28%) applying or thinking about applying to college answered that mental health issues are one reason why they may choose to delay going to college or choose not to enroll altogether.
“Anxiety and worry make me believe my future in college is going to be for nothing,” another respondent said. “Even if I get in and do what I’m supposed to, these feelings just press the brakes on my motivation and trigger my flight response. It’s like it doesn’t matter how much potential I have or how hard I work. If I can’t shake off this anxiety that’s holding me back mentally, then what is the point?”
That decision to forego college to some extent may be more likely for some student demographics than others as well, especially for students identifying as transgender (54%) and those identifying as nonbinary (53%). Black students (33%), Native American students (30%), and female students (30%) also were found to have a higher likelihood to make such a choice than the baseline 28% for all surveyed high schoolers.
Other concerns about attending college that the respondents voiced included worries over how much stress college will cause (18%), social worries over possibly not fitting in (14%), and complications due to family responsibilities (15%). A very notable half of students (54%) also cited affordability as a potential hurdle to them going to college.
The survey reaffirmed that mental health among youth in general persists as an issue. The majority of students asked reported that they felt anxious most days (58.8%) and were concerned to varying degrees about their own mental health (52%).
“It's the quantity of students that are experiencing this that is most surprising,” said Emily Niedermaier, senior director of audience generation at EAB. “I don't think that we were quite expecting this volume of students, of nearly 60% of high school students surveyed [reporting] feeling anxious most days. That was higher than what we anticipated."
Trans students were again found to have the highest likelihood for both, with 82% feeling anxious most days and 85% worried about their mental health – nonbinary respondents were a close second.
Surveyed students said that colleges and universities can still play roles in helping alleviate concerns over stress and mental health.
“It's one thing to identify or describe the problem. It's a lot more important to figure out what we're all collectively going to do about it,” Koppenheffer said. “I think that these solutions, unfortunately, have to be society-wide in many cases.”
Respondents suggested that schools implement supports such as mental health sick days, simplified leave policies, programs for social connection, and counselor diversity.
EAB, partly through its college search platform Appily, is trying to do its part as well, Koppenheffer said.
“What [EAB has] been trying to do in the little part that we can do is just make sure that, in the resources that we provide to students on places like Appily, that we are highlighting colleges that are particularly good at providing mental health supports and that we have information ... that might help students figure out how they can be best supported once they get to college," he said.