This year's class of U.S. college freshmen is reporting record-low levels of emotional health, with more students saying they frequently felt overwhelmed by work as high school seniors, according to an annual survey being released Thursday.
Yet the new students generally expressed positive attitudes toward higher education, even as they struggle to finance it. More students than ever — about 73 percent — believe it will help their earning power, researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles found.
"Despite the fact that students are concerned about the economy and stressed out ... they're still really optimistic about the college experience," lead author John Pryor said.
The study, titled The American Freshman: National Norms, found 51.9 percent reported their emotional health was above average, a drop of 3.4 percentage points from last year that Pryor called "fairly alarming."
Women were far less likely than men to report high levels of emotional health.
Overall, emotional well-being was at the lowest level since the question was first asked in 1985, when 63.6 percent reported feeling above average, the study said.
Pryor, director of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, said the reasons behind the decline are unclear, but the result may be that freshmen are less able to cope with the stress of their new academic and social environments.
That could lead to poor decisions in terms of time management and alcohol consumption, he said.
Marcus Hotaling, chairman of mental health for the American College Health Association, said he's not surprised by the findings.
In 1985, he said, many students with mental health issues did not get into college. Today, they are able to pursue higher education because of improved medication, better treatments, reduced stigmas and more open discussions of mental health.
"Students are more attuned to who they are, what they're dealing with, and that there's help out there," said Hotaling.
Academically, more students than ever — 71.2 percent — rated their abilities as above average; nearly 76 percent rated their drive to achieve in the same terms.
The study also found that a record 47 percent of freshmen expected to participate in student clubs or groups. And nearly 58 percent said there's a very good chance they'll be satisfied with their college experience overall — the highest percentage since 1982.
Thomas Dingman, dean of freshmen at Harvard University, said his "very, very busy" class of 1,675 students embodies both the optimism and the stress reported in the survey.
"Many of them come in with high expectations and feel that there's not that much room for error because they want to be successful," Dingman said.
Sean Marks, an 18-year-old freshman at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said the pressure he felt in high school has continued at college.
As a high school senior, Marks said he stayed home on Saturday nights to apply for scholarships. Now he has to keep up his GPA to retain that money.
"That's the whole mentality ... focus on school, have to get ahead, have to get scholarship money, have to apply for every single grant," Marks said.
Still, the economics major from Ewing, N.J., said he is extremely happy at Drexel and has become more involved with campus activities — even though it adds to his work load.
"I found a happy balance finally," Marks said. "But the stress definitely piles up if you don't know how to manage it correctly."
The UCLA study is based on the responses of 201,818 first-time, full-time students at 279 of the nation's four-year colleges and universities.