Just after the grassroots film "Race to Nowhere"  brought to the forefront the sometimes startling effect of academic pressures on high school students, perhaps it will be less surprising – though no less troubling – that as incoming college freshmen are reporting record highs in academic ability and drive to achieve, they are simultaneously reporting record-low states of emotional health.
These findings and others were released today in "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010 ," an annual survey and report prepared by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles. This year’s survey includes nearly 202,000 first-time, full-time students from 280 four-year colleges and universities “of varying levels of selectivity and type in the United States,” with the data weighted to represent all such students at all such colleges.
Notwithstanding the Tiger Mom argument , American students are facing very real pressures – pressures that likely contributed to the steepest one-year drop in emotional health ever recorded in the survey’s 45 years. “It’s a correlation, obviously. You don’t know if they’re being caused by each other,” said John H. Pryor, lead author of the report and director of CIRP. But, he added, “I think that all these pieces put together really point toward the need to reflect upon what exactly we are asking our high school students to go through and how we’re supporting them.”
And schoolwork isn’t the only thing dragging students down: incoming freshmen are also still feeling the impact of the recession, reporting higher use of loans and financial aid, and limits on where they could opt to attend college. But despite all that, they’re more optimistic about their college educations – in terms of success, experience and satisfaction – than they’ve been in nearly 30 years.
The last time that so many students (57.6 percent) had such high expectations for college was in 1982. But back then, they were also much happier, at least in terms of emotional health. Factor in today’s job market, institutional financial strains, and high-profile research  suggesting a college education’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and things start looking even gloomier. “Is it realistic to have incredibly high expectations of the college experience? Probably not,” Pryor said, noting that both this survey and others reflect “tremendously high” expectations. “Would I want it any different? Probably not.”
“Even though there are concerns that we have about the percentage of students who are coming into college already feeling overwhelmed, that their emotional health reserves might not be as high as we would want them to be, that there are still these financial stressors,” Pryor continued, “despite all that, they still want to take full advantage of the college experience.”
After seeing that their students were following the trend of increasingly low self-reports of emotional health, officials at University of the Pacific started a focus group for second-year students where they asked what would have helped them better transition to college and ease the mental burden on incoming freshmen. The message they got was that interacting with other students is key – a point also noted in the CIRP report. Pacific ended up creating an ambassador program in which trained seniors acted as mentors to new students, helping them find the best places to eat, where the registrar’s office is located, and just providing that peer-to-peer connection.
“We’ve found that that’s been very helpful in terms of emotional health,” said Mike Rogers, director of institutional research at Pacific, noting that his students fit the trend of increasing academic ability and drive, as well. “It’s not necessarily that our students feel that they have academic problems…. But they have just gigantic expectations for themselves. That may be contributing to the emotional health issue. That’s just a hypothesis that we have. They’re pressuring themselves too much.”
It’s an issue particularly prevalent among female students, who this year reported emotional health levels 13 percentage points lower than their male counterparts. While 51.9 percent of students self-identified as having emotional health in the “highest 10 percent” or “above average” compared to their peers – a 3.4 percentage-point drop from last year  – that includes only 45.9 percent of women, compared to 59.1 percent of men. (When CIRP first asked the question in 1985, a total of 63.6 percent of students reported emotional health at the highest level.)
Pryor said one reason for the gender gap could be that men report spending more time during their senior years on stress-relieving activities like playing video games and watching television, while women are less likely to do so. But Mark Reed, director of Dartmouth College’s Counseling and Health Resources departments, said it could also have to do with communication gaps between genders. “In general, young women are more aware and more willing to express and communicate mental health issues than young men are,” Reed said, adding that on average, even though Dartmouth's undergraduate student body is split equally between male and female students, visits to college counselors there and elsewhere break down to about 60 percent women, 40 percent men. “It’s hard to know, is there a significant difference between the emotional health of men and women – which is possibly true – and is it exacerbated a bit because men aren’t aware of it or don’t communicate as well as women do.”
Financial stressors, too, are apparent throughout the survey results. 53.1 percent of incoming freshmen took out student loans, and 73.4 percent received grants and scholarships to attend college – that’s the highest figure in 10 years. More students every year are drawing from multiple sources to finance their educations as families can’t cover as much; this was also a record year for unemployment of fathers, at 4.9 percent. Almost two-thirds said the “current economic situation significantly affected” their choice of college, and more than half of those students did not attend their first-choice institution, presumably at least in part because the financial assistance available to them was inadequate, the report says. (More students also favor heavier taxes on wealthy people and more federal taxing to help reduce the national deficit.)
Meanwhile, a record number of students – 72.7 percent – agreed that “the chief benefit of college is that it increases one’s earning power." About the same number cited “to be able to make more money” as a “very important” factor in their decision to go to college, but even more than that – 84.7 percent – said they attended so they could get a better job. Those percentages have risen dramatically in the past five years: in 2006, 66.5 percent said increased earning power is the chief benefit of college, and only 70.4 percent said they attended to get a better job.
Some sort of “disability/medical condition” was reported by 11.9 percent of students, with another 2.7 percent reporting two or more conditions. The survey this year also included a new section on “hidden” disabilities. Five percent of students reported having ADHD, more than any other disability or condition, and 3.8 percent said they had a psychological disorder. According to the report, students with disabilities are more likely to expect to need tutoring in specific courses, take longer to matriculate, and receive personal counseling. “Colleges will continue to need to factor in these increased demands for services as we see more students with these needs entering our institutions,” the report says.
As for the emotional health findings, Reed had a more positive outlook. Back in the 1980s, when students were reporting higher emotional health levels, the stigma surrounding mental illness was much greater than it is today, he said. As a result, more students today are acknowledging and seeking the help they need in high school and college for the various illnesses they may have. “Most colleges around the country have reported that they are having more students arrive with greater mental health needs…. But once here, with that mental support, students are doing quite well,” Reed said. “Perhaps this is indicative that higher education is becoming more accessible to people who may have mental health issues.”