Ah…to be a college student. Days spent on the college quad, frisbee or text book in hand, and late nights filled with frivolity. It is a time many people look back upon fondly, reminiscing of a simpler time. However, recent studies highlighted by the NY Times and Slate suggest college is not the carefree place it is often made out to be.
Tamar Lewin of the NY Times reports that the emotional health of freshman entering college is at an all time low.
In the survey, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” involving more than 200,000 incoming full-time students at four-year colleges, the percentage of students rating themselves as “below average” in emotional health rose. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell to 52 percent. It was 64 percent in 1985.
The statistic is seen as confirmation of what college counselors are encountering on a daily basis.
“More students are arriving on campus with problems, needing support, and today’s economic factors are putting a lot of extra stress on college students, as they look at their loans and wonder if there will be a career waiting for them on the other side.” said Brian Van Brunt, director of counseling at Western Kentucky University and president of the American College Counseling Association.
This pressure is in part due to a combination of increased, and internalized, expectations and the devaluing of having ‘just’ a college degree.
While first-year students’ assessments of their emotional health was declining, their ratings of their own drive to achieve, and academic ability, have been going up, and reached a record high in 2010, with about three-quarters saying they were above average.
“These days, students worry that even with a college degree they won’t find a job that pays more than minimum wage, so even at 15 or 16 they’re thinking they’ll need to get into an M.B.A. program or Ph.D. program.” said Jason Ebbeling, director of residential education at Southern Oregon University.
To make matters worse, Lippy Copeland reports in Slate that social networking websites, which have become pervasive on college campuses, only compound the suffering of the unhappy.
Led by Alex Jordan, who at the time was a Ph.D. student in Stanford’s psychology department, the researchers found that their subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were–and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result. Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends’ reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others’ attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. “They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life.”
The results of both reports are particularly concerning to women. Each study found that women reported higher stress and lower emotional well-being. According to Linda Sax, a professor of education at U.C.L.A. and former director of the freshman study, leisure activity helps us understand the gender gap.
“One aspect of it is how women and men spent their leisure time,” she said. “Men tend to find more time for leisure and activities that relieve stress, like exercise and sports, while women tend to take on more responsibilities, like volunteer work and helping out with their family, that don’t relieve stress.”
Copeland’s article also highlights the significance of leisure time in reporting that women are not only more likely to second guess major life decisions and measure themselves against others success, but they are also more likely to be active on Facebook.
Each article highlights youth confronting a time of increased pressure and uncertainty. While there are few simple answers, Copeland’s article provides a useful reminder when she turns once more to Jordan, now a postdoctoral fellow studying social psychology at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, who suggests
we might do well to consider Facebook profiles as something akin to the airbrushed photos on the covers of women’s magazine. No, you will never have those thighs, because nobody has those thighs. You will never be as consistently happy as your Facebook friends, because nobody is that happy.