Do you remember what it was like to be a college freshman? A new city or state to navigate. Meeting new friends. Exploring new subjects. Paying tuition bills. Eating ramen. Getting your assignments in on time… It is an extraordinarily exciting time in most students’ lives, as they begin to grow and form their own opinions and worldviews. It can also be overwhelming, stressful and a difficult process to navigate without support, from family, or higher ed institutions.
The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) of UCLA recently released statistics from this generation of college freshmen. The results were compared against a survey conducted with freshmen classes from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. It probably comes as no surprise that the various cohorts’ experiences differed greatly decades apart, and in turn, the study was able to produce some telling insights into how higher education has developed and what is still to come for American universities and colleges.
More Choice, More Competition
According to the HERI study, the application process has changed significantly in the past 50 years: 43% of college freshman interviewed in 1967 claimed that, other than the school they had decided to attend, they had not applied anywhere else. Now, 21% of college freshman applied to between seven and ten additional schools following high school. Seven years later, over three-quarters of students said that they were attending their first choice school, whereas in 2016 only 57% were currently enrolled at their top pick.
Despite the seeming increase in competitiveness and the sheer number of institutions accepting students, current freshmen appear to be much more confident academically than previous generations of freshmen, stating that 75% believe that they are above average or better than their peers– up from 67% in 1985.
Stressed and Overwhelmed
They may be confident, but perhaps the most troubling statistic shared in the study was the mental and emotional health concerns in a great number of college freshmen. 30 years ago only 18% of freshmen felt overwhelmed. That number has doubled since then when, in 2016, 41% said that they were overwhelmed. In addition, while 64% of the previous group from 1985 ranked themselves above their peers in terms of their emotional health, less than half of current freshman believed their emotional health ranked above average.
This feeling of emotional distress is not a unique finding. In a 2013 study of 30,000 Canadian postsecondary students, researchers found that almost 90% of interviewees said they were overwhelmed with all of the work they had to do. That’s almost all of them! What’s worse is that more than 50% of students from the same study shared that they felt “hopeless” and/or “lonely”.
In an article in the Globe and Mail about the 2013 Canadian survey, Dr. Su-Ting Teo, director of student health and wellness at Toronto’s Ryerson University, explains that many postsecondary students are not facing only one issue, but rather several stressors all at once, leading to the jump in the statistics. He also says, that while it’s easy for those who have been there before to shake off the stats and exclaim that students have it easy, it is important to remember all the responsibilities and challenges faced by today’s students.
The typical 2017 college freshman will certainly face a plethora of challenges. Cost of tuition is rising, the workforce is more competitive, and degree completion is low. Institutions, their administration, staff, and professors must do all they can to support this generation of students academically, in order to better support them emotionally. By offering effective student support, the emotional burden of attaining a college degree may be lightened, and we may begin to see a group of freshmen who are more excited and more inspired by the years of education ahead of them.