Student Stress: What Is Happening to College Freshmen?

The first year of college can be stressful for many students. College freshmen have to adapt to a new school and increased academic expectations. In addition, college freshmen currently face a struggling economy, rising tuition rates and growing doubts about the value of a college degree.

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New School, New Life

Many students experience a difficult transition from high school to college. According to a 2012 study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 30% of incoming freshmen felt overwhelmed by their academic and personal obligations during their high school senior year. The study concludes that many of these same students could feel overwhelmed during their freshman year of college.

Making Adjustments

Social adjustments can be daunting. Making new friends, navigating a new campus, acclimating to dorm life - all of these changes contribute to high stress levels among first-year students.

Academic adjustments often pose a challenge as well. College freshmen quickly learn that with independence comes less pushing from teachers and parents, forcing a higher level of self-discipline and responsibility for academic decisions. This can be stressful, particularly for students developed poor organizational skills or acquired bad study habits during high school.

How to Cope

According to Margaret Ross - a psychiatrist and director of behavioral medicine at Boston University - high levels of stress are very common among first-year students. To cope with so many changes at once, she encourages freshmen to keep their social and educational options open. They can try out a variety of academic fields or hang out with different peer groups to find the right fit. Struggling students are also encouraged to visit a school counselor for personalized help.

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A Struggling Economy

It's no secret that incoming college students face rising costs, and those costs often lead to stress. In 2012, roughly 43% of all first-year students carefully weighed the cost of each college they considered - up from 31% in 2004, according to the Higher Education Research Institute. In addition, more freshmen than ever are attending college in order to land a better job - 88%, compared to roughly 68% in 1976.

A high percentage of students are using loans to pay for college, which can lead to anxiety about future debt. As of 2011, the Project on Student Debt reported that roughly 67% of graduating seniors were saddled with an average of $26,600 in school debt.

In addition, many students question whether or not it's a good idea to even pursue a college degree with such an unstable economy. According to a 2013 study from Wells Fargo, about one-third of college graduates between the ages of 22 and 32 believe working instead of attending college would have been a smarter decision.

How to Cope

While the financial reality of college can be stressful, freshmen can find ways to manage their anxiety. First-year students should carefully consider their return on investment, according to Tracey Richards, a financial aid director at Montgomery County Community College. Determining whether or not a chosen career path is worth the expense of school can help alleviate stress in the future.

In addition, college freshmen should create a budget and stick to it. It's important to keep expenses to a minimum and avoid racking up credit card debt. Having an economic plan at the outset can help college freshmen minimize financial anxiety down the road.

Students: Don't miss these 10 tips for reducing stress in college.

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