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Emotional Well-Being of College Freshmen at All-Time Low Levels, Survey Shows

A new survey of college freshmen finds stress and depression is on the rise, with students rating their emotional health at the lowest level in 30 years.

The findings were part of the annual Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey released Feb. 5 by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Among the freshman class entering in the fall of 2014, about half considered their emotional well-being above average or in the highest 10 percent of their peer group, according to Kevin Eagan, the interim managing director of the institute and the main researcher on the report.  The other half described themselves as average, below average, or in the lowest 10 percent in the emotional health categories.

The question was first asked in the mid-1980s and then only about one-third of students put themselves in the lowest three categories, according to Eagan. 

The survey also revealed nearly 1 in 10 students in last fall's incoming freshman class reported feeling "frequently" depressed—the highest level since 1988 and an increase of 3.4 percentage points from 2009.

"By looking at how those trend lines move in tandem with each other, it seems that as self-rated emotional health worsens among entering college students, we're seeing a significant uptick in the proportion of students who come to college having frequently felt overwhelmed with all they had to do in their last year of high school," said Egan. "It's unclear whether the pressure is being placed on the students themselves or whether it's a combination of parents, teachers, and self-imposed high expectations of students, but it is apparent that they are coming to college more overwhelmed and more anxious about competing priorities in their lives."

In another section of the survey, students report spending less time socializing, partying, drinking, and smoking than in previous years.  Changes in minimum-age laws and health policies help explain the trends, the report notes.

About 9 percent of new college students said they spent six or more hours a week during the previous year at parties in this year's report, compared to 35 percent in 1987. Some 41 percent of the 2014 cohort said they did not attend parties at all.

Self-reporting of consumption of beer, wine and hard liquor among students dropped significantly in the past three decades. Nearly 74 percent of students in 1981 drank beer frequently or occasionally during their senior year in high school, compared to 34 percent in this year's survey. Wine and hard liquor use fell from nearly 68 percent in 1981 to 39 percent  in 2014.

In the early 80s, about 9 percent of college freshmen said they smoked cigarettes frequently, but just 2 percent do today.

Students are increasingly connected through social media. About 27 percent of respondents said they were plugged into online social networking for six or more hours a week in this year's survey, compared to 19 percent in 2007.

Still, the campus social scene matters to many high school seniors considering colleges. Nearly 44 percent said that a school's reputation for social activities was "very important" in their college choice this year, up from 24 percent in 1982.

The 49th freshman report from UCLA is based on a survey of about 153,000 first-time, full-time students who entered 227 various types of four-year colleges last fall.

Contributing Writer Kathryn Baron also assisted with this article

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