Student Stress: Whose is Worst?

Researchers examine patterns, cultures and demographics.
June 13, 2011

PHOENIX -- A quarter of students surveyed in the latest National College Health Assessment reported that stress has hurt their academic performance, resulting in such impacts as receiving lower grades or dropping courses. That percentage, while not consistent, has fluctuated around the 30-percent mark for more than a decade.

The trend raised a red flag for faculty members at two institutions on opposite sides of the country, both of whom were troubled by the harmful effects of stress and decided to dig deeper into where it comes from and how it impacts different types of students. Presenting their research to educators here at the American College Health Association’s annual conference last week, they made the case for understanding "stressors" as a way to boost student success.

“The important part that both institutions found is that it’s such an incredibly complex issue,” said Michael P. McNeil, director of health promotion at Columbia University. “I don’t think there’s ever going to be AN answer. There’s going to be a series of things we do to address this.”

While the Columbia study looked at students by academic unit, the University of San Diego researchers considered demographic factors such as status of first-generation students, race, employment, sexual orientation, and disabilities. Using open-ended focus groups, they asked students to identify their top three stressors and then sorted them by rank, frequency and severity between groups. So, for example, while students with disabilities were stressed by social issues most frequently, that form of stress was most severe for students of color. Same goes for time and non-school work stressors.

Many San Diego students suffer from retention issues revolving around socioeconomic status, said Margaret Baker, who began the project in 2007 while working there in health promotion but has since left the university. At the time of the survey, 63 percent of the students who could afford to pay the hefty $38,000 tuition were white, and fewer than 2 percent were black. (Today enrollment is 31-percent minority students.)

The average San Diego student reports worse academic impacts from stress than the average college student, and that doesn’t surprise Baker or her colleague Sandra Sgoutas-Emch, a psychology professor and director of San Diego’s Center for Educational Excellence, which fosters pedagogical development in faculty members. But they want the university to do something about the fact that, say, black students are the most stressed out by disrespectful remarks and property damage, campus climate is the only stressor with significantly worse impact for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) students than heterosexual ones, and that students who hold jobs report much higher levels of stress from their families, finances and time management.

Even though San Diego enrolls more Asian and Pacific Islander students than black students, the presenters didn’t make much mention of them because “Asian students weren’t showing any significant differences from Caucasian students on lots of variables,” Sgoutas-Emch said. The areas where they noticed a major difference was in family and campus climate stressors. She added that “quite frankly,” the administration is most concerned about black students. (Asian and Pacific Islander students did report higher levels of stress than white students relating to finances, but lower levels than black students.)

At least one person in the audience took issue with this omission, and so did Neil Horikoshi, president & executive director of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, in an interview. He noted the “model minority” stereotype that often plagues Asian students when people just assume they’re doing well. “We tend to be always excluded, which is one of the problems now because there’s very little tangible research in this area of the mental health issues, the stressors,” he said. But students who get scholarships through the fund say they struggle with a lack of institutional support – fewer than 1 percent of college presidents are Asian, Horikoshi said, and their representation down the administrative line isn’t a whole lot better – and often extreme pressures from their families and academe. “While there are professors who teach courses, there are no offices to really help students cope with true challenges…. They seek out each other, and that becomes their network of how they try to cope.”

Other aspects of the study have already spurred action. It prompted an audit of the financial aid office (to be conducted this summer), after the researchers collected comments like these – which echoed a common theme – and briefed different campus groups on their findings: “The financial aid system here is not built around being a minority…. When you actually ask them for help…. It’s just terrible because it’s almost like [they] don’t want minorities to go here…. The answers they give you sometimes are so socially specific, like where people were told, ‘Oh, why don’t you put it on a credit card?’ How are you going to put $10,000 to $15,000 on a credit card?!”

The work has brought about other changes, as well. A new LGBTQ action committee is devising a strategic plan partly based on this data, in an effort to improve the campus climate for these students. And a subcommittee is examining ways to restructure tutoring services because of how stress is impacting students’ academics. “Everybody can do this,” Baker said. “You can, with the tools that are available for you, quite simply try to paint that picture [of student stress], so you can try to share this information with administrators and those who can make changes in your particular environment.”

McNeil, meanwhile, said that because Columbia students typically excel in the classroom, “the academic argument is rarely salient at my institution, so I don’t even go there.” Instead, he appeals to administrators by tying the effort with their institutional mission. By helping students identify and address their main stressors, he says, the university is fulfilling its mission of advancing knowledge and learning – not to mention it makes for more engaged students, who become more generous alumni.

On average, 75 percent of Columbia students report feeling stressed in the last year, and 34 percent say it impacted their academic performance. Some of their top stressors surprised McNeil: they were “university administrative processes,” cluttered living environments (perhaps not so surprising), and the insufficient availability of healthy food choices on campus.

Many themes, such as finances, academics and relationships, were identified across the board. But some were unique to individual academic units: for instance, future goals in the School of General Studies, and housing in the Teachers College. Graduate School of Business students seem to have the most trouble: themes unique to them include new social dynamics, a location adjustment, and “career.”

McNeil’s project hasn’t inspired any institutional changes, but because his goal was to reduce the negative impacts of student stress, he’s trying to spread the word about positive coping methods – and what better way to do that than by giving students free stuff? They can receive agendas with coping messages like “I spend time with friends” or “I listen to music” imprinted on the cover. The students chose the messages themselves. (One coping method that was conspicuously rare in students’ responses was counseling. All three researchers suspected that was because of a stigma many students perceive in seeking help.)

The next step for McNeil is to figure out how to integrate stress into other efforts. “Rather than treat stress as a focused initiative,” he said, “we’re taking stress and drawing a connection to all the other work we do in health promotion.”

All three educators urged attendees at the session to take up a similar project.

“As you can see, stress is a popular topic. Students will be coming in throngs to your focus groups,” Baker said. “They love to talk about it and they have a lot to say, and using that power of the students, engaging the staff in your university administrations, and building that awareness can lead to actual outcomes that are far-reaching and beyond. I’m not there anymore, but the work is ongoing.”


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