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Why are college students so stressed out? It’s not because they’re ‘snowflakes’

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Across the country, college classes are well underway, the excitement of the start of the year is waning and student stress is on the rise. Frantic calls home and panicked visits to student health services will start to dramatically increase. And before long, parents and observers will start wondering what is wrong with these kids. Why can’t they handle the pressures of college and just pull it together?

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College student stress is nothing new. Anxieties over homesickness, social pressures, challenging course loads and more have been a common feature of the U.S. college experience for decades. But, without question, student stress levels and psychological distress are measurably worse than before. According to a national study published earlier this year in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, major depression among young adults (18-25) rose 63 percent between 2009 and 2017. They also report that the rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes increased 47 percent from 2008 to 2017.

It used to be that we thought of millennials (aged 22-37) as the stressed-out generation, but it looks like Gen Z adults (18-21) are faring even worse. A new study by the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that Gen Z outpaces all older generations in stress, with 9 in 10 Gen Zs between the ages of 18 and 21 reporting stress in the last month compared to around 75 percent of their elders.

As with millennials, the common practice has been to describe these stressed-out kids as snowflakes who have been ruined by helicopter parents, smartphones, and an outrageous sense of entitlement. The fix, as this logic goes, is for these kids to just suck it up, grow thicker skin and stop whining all the time.

This attitude, of course, is super convenient for older generations who don’t want to take seriously the idea that they may bear some responsibility for the stressful environment facing young college kids, one where their futures feel precarious and pressured. It is much easier to think that the problem is them, not the system they live in.

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But that thinking is not just wrong-headed; it is exactly what contributes to exacerbating college kid stress.

So, what are the top stressors for college kids?

The State of the Nation

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According to the APA, 68 percent of Gen Z adults feel very or somewhat stressed over the nation’s future. Moreover, this young generation feels stress over social crises at a level that is higher than their elders.

For example, mass shootings worry 75 percent of them as compared to only 62 percent of older generations. And that makes sense, since schools have too often been a site for mass shootings. This generation has grown up in an era where they have to practice live shooter drills—a fact of their student experience that has had a measurable impact on their stress.

Only 16 states ban concealed weapons on college campuses. In 2017, two states, Arkansas and Georgia, passed legislation allowing students and faculty to carry guns on campus. In Arkansas, students can have guns in dorms as long as they are within arm’s reach.

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Gen Z isn’t only concerned about mass shootings, though. APA reports that they also worry about the rise in suicide rates, climate change, the separation and deportation of immigrants, and widespread sexual harassment — all at a level higher than their elders.

Money

We repeatedly hear about rising student debt, but we rarely take into account the ways that these debts affect the stress levels of students. The latest student debt statistics show that there are more than 44 million borrowers who collectively owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. The average student in the class of 2017 owed $28,650.

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The trouble with these numbers, though, isn’t only the enormity of them; it is the way that they depersonalize the crisis. Melanie Lockhart reports on a survey of student loan holders “likely to have six figures of debt and have a graduate degree” that found that 1 in 15 survey responders have considered suicide due to their student loans. Nine in 10 borrowers experienced significant anxiety due to their student loans.

As Salon reports, student debt is especially stressful. Students with between $80,000 and $150,000 in debt were at the highest risk for considering suicide. Those students tend to lose about 10 percent of their income to debt repayment — a burden that can feel overwhelming for many.

Most of the statistics I have cited here are worse for students of color, first generation students, kids from lower income families and those raising families. For example, almost 85 percent of black bachelor’s degree recipients carry student debt, compared with 69 percent of white bachelor’s degree recipients. Students of color take longer to graduate, have higher amounts of debt and take longer to pay it off.

But it’s worse. Because it isn’t just students taking on debt; it’s their parents too. In fact, it is parents who are increasingly taking on debt to help with rising tuition costs. In November 2018, the Brookings Institution reported that the average amount for parent borrowers had more than tripled in the last 25 years and 3.4 million people hold parent PLUS loans amounting to almost $90 million. As CNBC reports, those numbers aren’t all of it, because many families finance education with home equity loans, credit cards and other sources of credit.

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Parents who take on debt to help pay for college should take some of the stress off of the kids, right? Wrong. The reality is that parent debt for college adds pressures to home finances. Those pressures lead to parent stress and that stress is often passed on to the college kid, who is reminded of the financial burden their education is on the family.

Work

Kids go to college with the idea that this is their one way to have a better, more lucrative career. And those facts do hold up. College graduates do have more career choices and do earn more money. Yet, they enter into a tough workforce, are generally paid less than previous generations and often take longer to launch careers.

The APA reports that 77 percent of Gen Z adults stress about work. And that stress is well-founded. In 2018, Forbes cited a study that claimed that 43 percent of recent college graduates were underemployed. This means students are in jobs that don’t effectively use their degrees and that typically pay less.

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Unemployment for college grads is overall quite low at around 2.1 percent for college grads as compared to 3.9 percent for high school grads. But here’s the rub. These employed college grads are hit by flat wages. In fact, wages for college grads have remained flat for over two decades, while debts have risen. Between 1989 and 2014 average wages for college grads grew only 14 percent. To make matters worse, cost of living has significantly increased. When we add that fact to debt payments, we can begin to understand the types of job stresses students face.

This has led to greater intergenerational inequality. Data shows reduced economic opportunity and reduced accumulation of wealth for the young. Back in 2013, Lawrence Yun reported in Forbes that the wealth difference between the young and the old had opened up to over 20-to-1. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that for the first time on record living with a parent was the most common young adult living arrangement.

But that’s not all. Because today’s college kids are increasingly part of a large network of unpaid internships, some of which linger after graduation.

As I reported for Salon last year, unpaid work for college students is increasingly the norm. According to Ross Perlin in his book “Intern Nation,” the unpaid internship has been on the rise since the economic crisis of 2008. Unpaid work has crept into almost every industry and it is commonplace for college students to work for free. To give you a sense of the scale, 97 percent of large corporations hired interns in 2014. Around half of them didn’t get paid.

Perlin notes that between 1-2 million, and around 75 percent of undergraduates at four-year colleges and universities currently take at least one internship before they graduate. And to make matters worse these kids pay to get internship credits at their universities, and they also have to cover room and board while working. These kids literally have to pay to work for free.

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As if this weren’t all enough, it turns out that college kids are indeed working for wages that help cover their expenses. The rise of full time college students carrying full time jobs has exploded. A 2015 report cited by the Atlantic showed that 25 percent of students work full time while also being enrolled full time. That study showed that nearly 40 percent of undergrads and 76 percent of grad students work at least 30 hours a week. Many of these students are older and have families to support. Almost 20 percent of them have children.

Studying

This is the one facet of student stress everyone thinks they get. Any college grad can recall the stresses over exam times, the worries over tough courses, and the constant challenge of juggling to meet deadlines.

But here’s the thing. Few parents will understand the very real ways that college workloads have changed. For one thing, 30 to 40 percent of students today double major, a fact that logically adds to student stress as they balance the needs of two distinct majors.

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Students often take course loads of 15 credits or more. They also struggle to get the courses they need for their majors and their general degree requirements. The fact that all institutions of higher ed have a slate of academic advisors on staff, a fact that wasn’t true decades ago, is proof enough that navigating degree requirements is a massive stress. Students regularly report not being able to get into a required course or their unit not offering the one class they need to finish and so on. Simply getting your schedule straight is a massive headache.

Students also take longer to graduate. In fact, the norm is increasingly six years due, in large part, to the complex challenges students have fulfilling degree requirements. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that the 6-year graduate rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at 4-year degree-granting institutions in fall 2011 overall was 60 percent. The official four-year graduation rate for students attending public colleges and universities is a mere 33.3 percent.

Lack of Support

But, you might be thinking, one thing that has changed on college campuses is that they are now well-equipped to offer a range of psychological support for students. And that fact is true. The problem, however, is getting access to it.

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As a general rule, students who seek psychological support on campuses tend to complain about a range of issues, including wait times for initial and follow-up appointments (sometimes as long as 5 weeks), caps on sessions, reduced hours of operation and more.

A study published last year of Yale undergraduate students showed that about a quarter of them sought counseling and most of them were unhappy with the results. The bulk of the trouble seems to stem from the fact that demand is on the rise and centers are understaffed. One seriously struggling Yale student had to wait nearly two weeks to see a therapist after seeing the on-call clinician. She then waited several more weeks before she saw a psychiatrist and sought medication. This means it can often take half a semester for a student to get full access to the care and support they need. “The wait was agonizing,” the Yale Student explained, “and I spent every day of those weeks crying for hours at a time and feeling abandoned by a system that had been marketed to me as functional.”

That was Yale. Stories of similar treatment of students abound from institutions as well-regarded as Northwestern, Duke, Hamilton College,Stanford, and more. If these schools can’t get it together, what chances are there for institutions with less resources?

Students don’t only feel like they are in an unsupportive environment; the facts bear it out. One of starkest ways to illustrate this point is with sexual assault statistics. Among undergrads, 23.1 percent of females and 5.4 percent of males experience rape or sexual assault while at school.

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While we often think of bullying as a problem for younger kids, it turns out that college isn’t much better. A research study by Amelia Perry found that 64.3 percent of participants have witnessed bullying in some capacity and 28.7 percent reported being the victim of bullying since coming to college.

As if this were not sufficient reason for college kids to be stressed, they also have to deal with a general public who tends to disparage their very valid feelings of anxiety. College kids are called wimpy, wusses, whiners, babies, and, in the words of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.”

While it may well be true that the era of trigger warnings and safe spaces demands tough conversations about the degree to which a college student should feel “safe” on campus, there remains little doubt that the pressures these kids face are systemic, structural and certainly not all in their head.

Older adults, of course, prefer to claim that the problem is a generation that is unprepared to function like grown-ups, because recognizing that these kids have real reasons to stress would require us to take responsibility for our roles in the world they’ve inherited. And who is mature enough to do that?


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