The transition from high school to college is challenging, but perhaps not in the ways young adults and their parents anticipate. Parents may worry about their children socializing too much, staying out too late and neglecting their studies.
But new research has shown a new set of hazards, such as stress and loneliness, not usually linked to the carefree college experience.
Researchers at UCLA recently released a report on a comprehensive survey about the changing lives of America's first-year college students, and among their most striking findings are that high school seniors and first-year college students are feeling more depressed, studying more, socializing less, spending more time on social media, and affiliating less with organized religion than young adults of the past.
The survey, conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA, has been run every year since 1966. In 2014, 9.5 percent of students reported that they “frequently” feel depressed, the highest proportion of depressed students in the survey’s history.
Kevin Eagan, CIRP director, admitted it’s difficult to say why college students might be more depressed, but survey results paint a picture of young people who are feeling overwhelmed.
“When we look at all these trends in connection with one another, it begins to suggest that maybe students are taking academics so seriously … that they’re not allowing themselves a social outlet to alleviate stress. Without that social outlet, that’s contributing to greater levels of stress, anxiety, and perhaps even depression,” Eagan said.
Sarah Sakha, a first-year student at Princeton, agreed that the pressure to succeed academically is making students less social. “Shutting people out is a result of the stress, the pressure, the high-stakes environment,” she said.
Dr. Victor Schwartz, the medical director for The Jed Foundation, notes that while the rise in depression among first-year college students is a cause for concern, families should not overreact to the trend. “It’s a small fluctuation in the percentage,” he noted.
In general, Schwartz said, college is associated with good mental health. College students are only half as likely to commit suicide as 18- to 25-year-olds who are not attending college, Schwartz pointed out. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that for most people, college is a really positive thing, and probably protective. It’s a great experience, but it certainly can have its bumps and its challenges.”
The Jed Foundation has created a website, “TransitionYear.org,” to help high school juniors and seniors and their parents plan for a healthy transition through the first year of college.
Here are 15 of the most interesting findings from the CIRP American Freshman 2014 survey:
1. Students are spending more time on social media. The survey found that 27.2 percent of first-year college students spend six hours or more hours per week on social media, up from 18.9 percent in 2007. Social media use and depression in college students are both rising, but the relationship between the two is unclear.
“It’s hard to know whether the fact that young people are spending more time online is leading them to be depressed, or people who are more depressed tend not to be out socializing and will spend more time online,” said Schwartz. “It might be that it’s a kind of mutual feedback loop and that both are true.”
Sakha pointed out that students are already spending lots of time using computers to do homework, so it’s natural for them to use those same computers for social media. “That’s fine, but when that’s the extent of the interaction, it’s sad,” she said.
2. Students are spending less time on in-person socializing. Student socializing is down in general, and 18 percent of students say they spend fewer than six hours a week socializing.
3. First-year students seek out schools that provide opportunities to socialize. While socializing may be down, about 44 percent of students indicated that school-sponsored activities were a “very important” factor in their choice of school.
Sakha advocates for students to make in-person connections as a member of Princeton’s Mental Health Initiative. Recently, she said, she attended a “speed-friending” event held by the school’s Religious Life Council. Sakha is not religious and didn’t think she would be interested in the event, but she went at the invitation of a friend and connected with students she wouldn’t have met otherwise.
“A big part of meeting new people is being open-minded,” she said. “I think if we’re more willing to leave our shells, and leave our bubbles, and try things that we would never fathom, that’s a key step forward.”
4. Students perceive their own emotional health as lower. About half of all students rated their own emotional health as above average, mathematically correct but a low for the survey.
5. Disability is linked with depression. Students with existing mental disabilities such as autism or ADHD experience higher rates of depression.
6. Depression reduces success in the classroom. Students who are depressed are more likely to come late to class, skip class, fall asleep or be bored in class.
7. Students’ political views lean toward the left. More than 30 percent of students describe their political views as “far left” or “liberal,” while 20 percent describe their views as “conservative” or “far right."
8. Religious affiliation is declining. While in 1971 only about 15 percent of students declared they had no religious affiliation, that number has now climbed to more than 27 percent.
Eagan pointed out that religious affiliation is decreasing in all segments of society, so the decline among college students is not surprising. He speculated that the decline in religious participation might be affected by students’ political views.
“Students have become more left-leaning,” Eagan said. “In the last 17 years, we’ve seen a 32-point increase in the proportion of students who are in support of same-sex marriage. I think what may be happening is when students hold one set of values with respect to these social issues and hear another set of values coming from the church, they may see that the church is not a place for them.”
9. Self-perceived spirituality is declining. About 40 percent of students report their own spirituality as “above average.” This compares to 44 percent in 1996.
10. High school seniors are less likely to use alcohol or tobacco. The 2014 survey showed the lowest rates of drinking and smoking in 30 years. The rate of drinking increases significantly in the first year of college.
11. Partying expectations are linked to academic expectations. Students who drank alcohol frequently in high school were less likely to expect good grades in college.
12. Students believe themselves to be tolerant of different groups and viewpoints. More than 80 percent of students rated their ability to interact with different groups as “strong” or “very strong.”
13. Students anticipate needing extra time to complete their degrees. More than one-third of students think it will take them more than four years to graduate.
14. Many students enter school intending to transfer. Across all institutions, 22.9 percent of students intend to transfer, and this number is higher for less selective institutions.
15. Students are more likely to want a graduate degree. About 75 percent of students say they intend to get a graduate degree, compared to less than 50 percent in 1974.
Marsha Maxwell is an online journalist, writing teacher and PhD student at the University of Utah. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.