College Students Feeling Overwhelmed by Stress

For those of us who have attended college at some point in our lives, we most likely have memories, no matter how distant, of our freshman year.  This was a time when we assumed that we would embark on a new journey free from certain constraints that were imposed upon us by mom and dad. We felt that we had finally reached the land of official adulthood. It was, indeed, the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. This was true in my case. While I certainly had a good relationship with my parents, I longed for a freedom that gave me much more, if not, total autonomy over my own affairs.

Truth be told, I was a sensible and well-behaved college student even as a freshman. I did, however, take part in enjoying myself (in a controlled and respectful manner) like many college students do. In fact, I remember one sagacious adult telling me shortly before I entered the postsecondary chapter of my life that college should be a place where you study and learn various forms of knowledge, but it should also be a memorable experience. This was my story.

Like many freshmen, I harbored a number of concerns. Would I make friends? Will I like the school? Will I be able to handle the work? The answer was yes to all three questions. It is probably safe to say that my experience was typical of at least 60 percent of freshmen who entered college at the time I did, in the mid-1980s. While I am sure most of my generation of college students endured some stress in one manner or another, it seems the current generation of first-year students  are doing so at record levels.

Much discussion has taken place about the results of the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute findings released a few weeks ago. According to the annual Freshman Survey report, 51.9 percent of freshman stated that their emotional health was “below average.” This was a slight drop from 55.3 percent in 2009 and down from 64 percent in 1985 (the year I was a college freshman). The survey included more than 200,000 full-time students from nearly 280 four-year colleges.

While the results are by no means a comprehensive study, they probably do reflect an accurate reality for many young people just entering college. Throughout American history, college students have had basic concerns. However, there is a major distinction between the students who are entering college today (the “Millennials”) and my cohort (“Generation X”). Those of us who entered college in the mid-80s did so at time when the economy was strong, most of us had parents who had very good or stable jobs, summer jobs were plentiful, college was still reasonably affordable and we had reasonable expectations that we would be able to secure jobs once we graduated. This was the case for many of my peers. I went straight to graduate school. Today, it is a different story.

Many of today’s students have parents who are either unemployed or underemployed. The cost of college has exploded. Internships and summer jobs are much less readily available, causing more students to turn to student loans, resulting in massive debt. The economy is volatile (although there are some small signs that it is slowly rebounding) and job prospects are mediocre at best. The survey also found that 53.1 percent of students were relying on student loans to finance school and 73.4 percent were relying on grants and scholarships. This was the highest level of dependency on financial aid since the survey began asking the question in 2001.

It appears that male college freshman are fairing notably better than their female counterparts. About 59.1 percent of first-year men described themselves as emotionally strong and healthy, as opposed to only 45.9 percent of freshman women. Of course, the disparity could be due to the historical reluctance of men to admit their emotional and psychological vulnerabilities to others.

While the study is useful, a breakdown of questions along racial lines would have complimented the report.  The fact is that students of color, particularly Blacks and Hispanics, are more likely to come from families who have been hard hit by the recession. They are thus more likely than White students to rely on financial aid like Pell Grants and loans. Psychological and emotional stress, along with higher attrition rates, often accompanies such situations.

The study clearly demonstrates the need for more campus mental health services. It appears a growing number of students are entering college with emotional baggage that must be detected before they progress along  in their college careers. It also means that professors should be more attentive to students who display abnormal behavior, are chronically absent from class, or whose grades dramatically drop or fluctuate. Many professors reserve their attention for graduate students, or particularly focused undergraduate students. The same attention must be directed to our more and most needy students.

— Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African-American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board.