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Freshman Stress

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Every year, UCLA's Higher Education Research Center does a national study of college freshmen, some 200,000 in all. This year, the big news is emotional health -- or lack thereof. Nearly half of the students surveyed -- and more than half of the young women -- ranked their emotional health as "below average," the highest numbers since the survey began 25 years ago.

What gives? You don't have to be a college counselor to know some of the sources of the stress. The economy is surely No. 1. These are young people who are starting college and in many cases taking on massive debt, without any assurance of a well-paying (or any) job at the other end. They are part of a generation that, everyone keeps telling them, cannot hope to live as well as their parents. And their parents, or many of them, are not living as well as they used to.

The only thing worse for a student than worrying about their own potential unemployment is worrying about their parents' current unemployment -- and the impact of college costs (even with all those loans) on families that are in economic trouble. This year's study found paternal unemployment at the highest levels since the study began. And it found increasing numbers of students making the decision about where to go to school based not on the school's rankings or their own dreams, but on who gives them money.

Obviously, the study points to the need for more mental health services on campus. Freshmen who come in stressed are likely to get even more stressed in an environment where making the grades and making the connections may well spell the difference between having a job -- or entree to grad school -- at the end of four years, and not. It points to the need for professors like me (I teach freshmen, as well as law students.) to pay even more careful attention to how our students are doing, to take note of repeated absences or work that suddenly falls below standards, and to reach out to those students to offer help, not threats.

But we who are parents also need to help our children find some balance, some comfort in their situations, some hope that not every decision they make now will determine their fate forever.

I went to the college that gave me the most money. It was not my first choice, or any choice. It just was. To be honest, at the time, it just seemed obvious that I would go to the school that gave me money even if now, when I meet young people who do the same thing, it seems like a painful choice.

Forget it. My last choice turned out to be a great choice. College is what you make of it. Wherever you are can be the right place for you -- or the wrong place -- not because of how it's ranked on some national survey, but because of how you approach it.

When I was in college, I used to despair when people told me these were the best years of my life. They weren't. The years when I had my children and they were still small (and lived at home and wanted nothing more than to be with their mother) were the best. My college years were hard (I was always afraid that I wouldn't be able to handle the work, not having attended some fancy public or private high school) and often lonely (I used to joke that months passed where the only guy who came to our dorm was the janitor.). My parents split up, my world fell apart, I had no place to live, no money, I had to leave early to work - boohoo and all that.

Some people love college. Some people are not lonely, scared or financially on a precipice. Those people can use this column to wrap tomorrow's fish.

As for the rest of us, children and parents, it's worth taking a minute to remind ourselves that, like so much in life, it's not the hand you're dealt but how you play it. College, in the end, is not a competition, but a time to learn, grow and develop the values you will live by. It is a beginning and not an end, an opportunity and not a burden, a time for growth and not gut-wrenching stress.

I was as stressed as anyone in college, which might be why I did so well. But guess what: Plenty of people who didn't do as well as me and didn't attend as fancy a school have bigger jobs, more success, richer husbands -- whatever it is that today's students are so stressed about finding at the other end.

So much for stress. It doesn't even work.


See Other Political Commentaries.

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich.  

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. 

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