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More college freshmen feeling overwhelmed, survey finds

Emotional health is at a record low, with many students reporting stress over tuition and a high rate of unemployed parents, annual UCLA study says.

January 27, 2011|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • Students at Cal State Long Beach walk to and from class. Nearly 39% of women in the survey said they were often overwhelmed, more than twice the share of the men.
Students at Cal State Long Beach walk to and from class. Nearly 39% of women… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

This year's college freshmen report feeling higher levels of emotional and financial stress than their predecessors did, according to a national survey conducted by UCLA researchers.

The annual "American Freshman" report, released Thursday, showed that only about half of current first-year students, 51.9%, rated their emotional health above average or higher, down from 55.3% last year and the lowest since the question was first asked 25 years ago. Just 45.9% of women in the class described themselves as emotionally strong, compared with 59.1% of the men.

In addition, nearly two-thirds of this year's freshmen, 62.1%, said the recession had affected their choice of college, and 73.4%, up from 70% last year, are depending on grants and scholarships to help them through. The young people, interviewed just before they started classes in the fall, also reported relatively high rates of parental unemployment.

"What it means is that going into college, students are already feeling more stress and feeling more overwhelmed and have lower emotional reserves to deal with that stress," said John H. Pryor, lead author of the report and managing director of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, which operates the survey.

First given in 1966, the annual survey is considered the nation's most comprehensive assessment of college students' attitudes. This year's report was based on the responses of more than 201,000 incoming freshmen at 279 four-year colleges and universities around the country.

Pryor said he was struck this year by the gap between young men and young women in discussing whether they frequently felt overwhelmed by all they had to do at school, home and jobs as high school seniors. Nearly 39% of women said they were often overwhelmed, more than twice the share of the men. Overall, more than 29% said they had felt such stress, up 2 percentage points from the year before.

The gender gap, Pryor speculated, may be attributed to what young people do at home. "The guys are spending more time in stress-relieving activities, like watching TV and playing video games. The girls are more likely to be helping out with chores at home," he said, citing responses to other questions in the survey.

But on the positive side, record high proportions of the freshmen said they expected to participate in clubs and community service in college and to receive good grades. A strong majority, 57.6%, said there was a "very good chance" they would be satisfied with their college experience, the highest share since 1982. Pryor said he found that optimism to be heartening.

The report also looks at political attitudes of students, finding that 46.4% describe themselves as middle-of-the-road, 30.2% liberal or far left and 23.5% conservative or far right. Researchers say that shows a modest shift from the liberal and left side of the spectrum to the middle, and may indicate a slight waning of the enthusiastic youth activism surrounding President Obama's election in 2008.

In a new question this year, the survey found solid support among students for the legal right of gays and lesbians to adopt children, with 76.5% agreeing strongly or somewhat. That included a majority of freshmen who described themselves as conservative or far right politically.

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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