First-year students’ emotional health hits new low

Confident in their academic ability but less so in their interpersonal skills, this year’s freshmen believe the main benefit of a college education is to increase their earning power. More than ever they aspire to be well off – and also to help others – while their emotional health has hit a new low.

This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.

That’s the portrait of students today, according to the annual Freshman Survey, released last Thursday by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, part of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, or UCLA.

The report, The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014, is based on responses from 153,015 first-time, full-time freshmen at 227 baccalaureate institutions who were surveyed during registration, orientation or the first few weeks of classes.

Less experience socialising

Students have less experience socialising, and they might want some help.

Whether they had helicopter parents or got accustomed to interacting with their peers on smartphones, today’s college freshmen report changing social habits. A few decades ago, they socialised a lot, with 38% spending 16 hours or more a week as high school seniors hanging out with friends. This year only 18% said the same.

It comes as no surprise that today’s students are more likely to interact with their peers on social media. More than a quarter said they’d spent six hours or more a week on Facebook, Twitter and other sites, up from 19% seven years ago.

And they seem to realise that their ability to relate to other people may be suffering: About half said their interpersonal skills were either "a major strength" or "somewhat strong", far below the share of those who said the same of their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

A trend of students looking to colleges to help them socialise has worried some observers, who say it detracts from academic rigour.

Nearly half of this year’s freshmen said their college’s reputation for social activities was "very important" in their decision to enrol there. About three-quarters of freshmen told the National Survey of Student Engagement in 2013 that their college placed "very much" or "quite a bit of” emphasis on providing opportunities to socialise.

Lacking experience of diversity

Students are open to diversity, but many lack experience with people from different backgrounds.

The hallways students walk in high school and the neighbourhoods they grow up in shape their expectations for college life.

Although more than eight in 10 freshmen were confident in their ability to tolerate others with different beliefs and to work cooperatively with diverse groups of people, many lacked that experience. Nearly a quarter of this year’s freshmen came from neighbourhoods that are either completely white or non-white.

Those students were much less likely than their peers from more diverse neighbourhoods to socialise frequently with someone from a different racial or ethnic group.

Among students who had socialised often with someone of a different race in high school, 77% said they were likely to do the same in college, compared with 40% of students who’d previously socialised with someone of a different race only occasionally or not at all.

Which students rated their ‘ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective’ as a strength? Eight in 10 of those who had frequently socialised with someone of a different race or ethnicity, but just six in 10 who had not done so at all.

One notable difference: More than half of black students (57%) but less than a third of white students (29%) considered it important to help promote racial understanding.

Growth in aspirations

Students increasingly see their undergraduate education as the first step in a long journey.

If the bachelor degree is the new high school diploma, will a graduate degree become the new baccalaureate? Nearly half of freshmen this year said they planned to seek a masters degree, up from about a quarter 40 years ago. A third of students now start college with plans to pursue a doctorate or professional degree – like a PhD, EdD, MD or JD). Four decades ago, 21% professed similar plans.

The growth in students’ aspirations has been most notable among first-generation students: Nearly three-quarters plan to pursue graduate degrees, roughly the same as their peers with at least one parent who attended college.

Signals from the labour market may be contributing to higher degree aspirations. Nearly a quarter of entry-level jobs in 2022 are expected to require at least a four-year degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Positions that demand a masters degree are projected to grow the fastest. "Students," the authors of the Freshman Survey write, "may be recognising that, in order to advance further, a graduate credential is becoming more necessary."

Early offers count

Academic reputation still matters most in choosing a college, but an early offer counts too.

Today’s freshmen grew up in the early-bird era of college admissions. As competition for applicants has intensified over the last two decades, many highly selective institutions have created or expanded early-admissions programmes, which can help nail down an incoming class. Along the way, more applicants have come to prize an early offer. In 1999, just 7% of freshmen said that an early acceptance was a very important factor in choosing their college. This year 16% said so.

That increase may reflect the growth of early-action programmes, in which students admitted early are not obligated to commit early – or to accept the offer at all.

Nearly a third of colleges now use early action, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s most recent survey. On average, 42% of all applications to those colleges are submitted that way.

But the appeal of applying early varies. About a quarter of freshmen at highly selective public or private colleges reported on the UCLA survey that early admission was very important in their choice of college. Significantly smaller shares of students at the least-selective colleges rated early admission as a major factor.

Over all, the wealthiest students were much more likely than the poorest to say an early-admission programme had greatly influenced their decision.

Depression is a rising problem

About one student in 10 is depressed.

Depression among students is on the rise, and it can have academic consequences. The share of freshmen (10%) who reported "frequently" feeling depressed in the past year is more than three percentage points higher than it was five years ago. The proportion is also higher than in the general population (5%), according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Students’ ratings of their emotional health this year were the lowest since the Freshman Survey started asking.

Students who said they were frequently depressed were more likely than their peers to report being academically disengaged. In their senior year of high school, they were about twice as likely to have arrived late to class or fallen asleep sitting there. Nearly six in 10 said they were frequently bored in class.

Depressed students were also significantly more likely to say that they would seek counselling, which on campus has been seeing higher demand. About 40% of visits to campus counselling centres are prompted by concerns about depression, according to the most recent survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.

"It is clear," the Freshman Survey researchers wrote, "that campuses have more work to do to assist students experiencing emotional health issues."

Dan Berrett writes about teaching, learning, the curriculum and educational quality. Follow him on Twitter @danberrett, or write to him at dan.berrett@chronicle.com. Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrolment management challenges and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is eric.hoover@chronicle.com.