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Attending a Less-Challenging College May Hurt, Not Help, High School Transition

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Even a high school valedictorian can feel anxious becoming just one out of hundreds of top performers at an academically competitive university. But a new study suggests that students who have lower-achieving classmates in college than they had in high school show more symptoms of depression.

The study, published in the journal Youth and Society, finds twice as many students ended up with college classmates with lower academic standing than their peers in high school, based on high school verbal and general academic assessments as well as college placement test scores. Only 23 percent of students attended colleges with higher-achieving peers than they'd had in high school. And contrary to common wisdom, students with lower-achieving classmates in college had a rough freshman year.

"When you think of it, a college transition is made of three parts: where you're coming from, where you end up, and the difference between those things," said study co-author Matthew Andersson, an assistant sociology professor at Baylor University, in a statement. He suggested increased depression may come because "the downward transition might trigger a sense of being a misfit. That might trigger having fewer friends or less of a sense of attachment to the college or university that one is attending." 

Researchers from Baylor University and the University of California, Davis, tracked data from more than 1,400 high school students who later attended four-year colleges in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which provides information about students' mental health as well as their school-level achievement data. They controlled for students' demographic, academic, and mental health backgrounds, but also school factors, such as whether students attended public or private schools, the concentration of students in poverty and parent education levels in the schools. 

When the researchers compared how students responded to two batteries measuring self-esteem and depression, they found students with lower-achieving college classmates showed 27 percent more symptoms of depression than students who attended colleges with higher-achieving peers.

Unlike some prior research, the study found students did not show more signs of depression or lower self-esteem when they attended college with more challenging peers. Interestingly, students' self-esteem generally improved when they went from high school to college, regardless of their classmates. Students who went to less-competitive schools still had confidence in their own academic ability.

This so-called "undermatching," in which high-achieving high school graduates choose a college less rigorous than their academic qualifications would predict, is often a particular problem for students from low-income or traditionally underrepresented groups or first-generation college-goers. Prior studies have found that students who are undermatched in college are significantly less likely to complete a degree

Two-Year Research Needed

The study had some caveats, though. Co-author Noli Brazil, an assistant professor in human ecology at U.C., Davis, said the pool of students was too small for the study to gauge whether, for example, black students or female students were more affected by undermatching than other groups.

And all of the students attended four-year colleges, so the results do not give a picture of how peers affect the well-being of the majority of lower-income students who attend two-year colleges. Brazil noted these students tend to differ from four-year college-goers not only in backgrounds but also in their academic and career goals. "Two-year colleges are often temporary states for a lot of students—these students likely have ambitions to move onto a four-year college, so their 'stake' in that two-year college isn't likely as deep or grounded as it would or will be at a four-year college," Brazil said. "Moreover, students enrolling in two-year colleges likely are living closer to home and perhaps are still very much connected to their high school personal networks, which on the one hand may make the transition to postsecondary easier, or complicate it."

Still, the study suggests schools could help their students think more optimistically about how well they would fit at academically competitive schools. 

"The recommendation for counselors would be to learn more about the high school and background a student is coming from instead of just present, college-focused factors or personal factors. It's about the school environment, not the individual," Andersson said in a statement.

Photo: Getty


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