Researchers at the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles say that worries about student loans are having a measurable negative impact on the mental health of first-year college students.
The latest results, from the fall of 2010, of the long-standing annual study "The American Freshman: National Norms" show that the overall mental health of first-year students in college has dropped to a 25-year low, prompted in part by concerns about the economy and paying for college.
Surveyed students among the class of 2014 cited growing concern about the current state of the economy and the need to pay for higher education with student loans as a primary cause of chronic stress.
About half of the study subjects reported that they had had to take out student loans to pay for their education. Researchers say that these students also expressed uncertainty about their ability to repay their college loans after graduation.
Indirect woes related to students' families and the economy also had a pronounced effect on new students. Paternal unemployment was cited as a serious concern of nearly 5 percent of students surveyed, while 8.6 percent of students reported that maternal unemployment was a significant concern.
Researchers report that a growing number of new college students can't rely on family support to finance their education and must take on the burden of paying for college themselves by finding available student loans, grants, and scholarships. Nearly three-fourths of the study participants reported that they received some grants or scholarships to help defray their higher education expenses, the highest reported proportion since 2001.
The study also noted that participants reported feeling frequently overwhelmed as high school seniors and that female participants reported a significantly lower state of mental health than did their male counterparts.
The study, which has been conducted annually since 1966, examines, among other things, the mental health status of more than 200,000 full-time first-year college students at nearly 280 four-year higher education institutions throughout the United States. Participation in the study is voluntary, and the survey questions are focused on the students' self-perceptions of mental health.
Researchers say that the study results should serve as a warning to college administrators that students who are already overwhelmed with worries about financial and family matters when they arrive on campus may respond to high or increasing levels of stress by managing their time poorly, performing poorly in classes, or turning to drugs and alcohol or other self-destructive behaviors in an attempt to relieve stress.
Barely 52 percent of participants classified their perceived mental health status as "in the highest 10 percent" or "above average." This characterization reflects a drop of 3.4 percent from the answers given by first-year students in 2009, and a drop of 11.7 percent from 1985, when mental health self-assessment questions were first added to the survey.
Concerns about the economy and post-graduation employment may be driving students to work harder. The study indicates that participants reported a stronger drive to achieve and higher perceived academic abilities than did past study participants. Nearly three-fourths of study participants said better earning potential was the chief benefit of a college degree.
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