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Freshmen Facing Higher Degree Of Stress National Survey Finds New College Students Worried About Money, Grades, Success

Mon., Jan. 13, 1997

Just beginning their collegiate odyssey, members of the class of 2000 are far more stressed than those who have gone before, a nationwide survey has found.

More college freshmen are stressed about money, their grades and getting ahead. More of them are smoking. More admit being depressed, and a record number say they frequently feel “overwhelmed by all I have to do.”

The emotional strain reflected on questionnaires distributed to America’s freshman class continues a trend that has so disturbed the survey’s directors that they even asked students this year about taking anti-depressants and losing their tempers.

“The emotional health of students seems to have bottomed out,” said Alexander W. Astin, director of the 31st-annual survey by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, to be released today.

“It’s not that we have more crazy students or they are brittle mentally but that they are feeling more stressed by the pressures in their lives,” Astin said. “And college years are supposed to be fun.”

Much of the pressure is self-inflicted in a class brimming with self-confidence: An all-time high of 57.9 percent assessed their academic ability as at least above average; a record 49 percent said they believe they will make at least a B average in college; 66.3 percent said they plan to go on to graduate school as a way to make themselves more marketable - another all-time high.

“What good is a bachelor’s degree?” asked University of Southern California freshman Brian Yates, who completed the survey in the fall. “I need to get the best grades I can so I can get into the best law school I can. I chose law because of the potential to make money.”

Yet, making money no longer is the most frequently cited reason for going to college, the survey shows. It has been eclipsed in the hard economic realities of the 1990s by a more modest goal: “to get a better job.”

Linda J. Sax, associate director of the survey, said this year’s results “appear to reflect reaction to an increasing society pressure to go to college and get ahead in life.”

This competitive atmosphere contributes to continuing grade inflation in high school as teachers feel pressure to help students advance, she said. A full 31.5 percent of freshmen now report earning A averages in high school, up from 28.1 percent last year and a low of 12.5 percent in 1969.

And while this year’s freshmen reported taking more college preparatory classes, a record 35.6 percent acknowledged they were frequently “bored in class,” a trend that disturbs Astin.

The survey suggests that all of this competitive fervor is taking a toll and that financial pressures are paramount.

Besides piling up record debt, two-thirds of this year’s freshmen are at least somewhat concerned they will not have enough money to complete college.

Student loans continue to balloon as federal grants and aid have failed to keep pace with college costs. More than one-quarter of students now rely on federally guaranteed loans, while another 9.3 percent rely on loans from their colleges.

More students expect to get a job to help pay for college. This year, 41.1 percent plan to get part-time jobs and 6.4 percent plan to work full time.

“Given these trends,” the survey concludes, “it is not surprising that the percentage of freshmen who feel frequently ‘overwhelmed by all I have to do’ rose sharply to an all-time high of 29.4 percent compared with last year’s record high of 25.3 percent.”

In the nationwide survey, one out of eight women in the freshman class reported “frequently” feeling depressed, contrasted with only one out of 10 women a decade ago. Fewer men report frequent depression: 7.4 percent of this year’s class compared with about 6 percent in 1986.

Cigarette smoking has been on the upswing for the past four years, with 15.6 percent of women and 13.1 percent of men calling themselves frequent smokers.

Although Astin attributes much of teenage smoking to rebellion, he also considers it “a reflection and a cause of stress.”

Astin, who has been questioning students for 30 years, finds himself worrying about the new crop coming of age when it is more difficult to pay for college but when expectations for a successful college career are high.

“We’ve designed a system,” he said, “where our best students are over-committing themselves.”

xxxx Survey The survey, which gathered responses from 251,323 freshmen this year, is the United States’ oldest and most comprehensive assessment of student attitudes.

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