Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Kids are Stressed Out

I didn't know this, but the New York Times reports this morning that the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA does an annual survey of incoming college freshmen.  The survey asks students for their own estimation of their emotional health, and that has been dropping for years.  Then, in this year's report, it took another sharp turn for the worse.  The graph above shows the percentage of students reporting "above average" or "highest 10%" as to their emotional health.

The Times adds a graphic that breaks it out by gender, and looks also at the number of students reporting being "overwhelmed" in high school, which is also close to breaking new highs:

No doubt, there are immediate factors associated with the great recession here.  Indeed the survey Powerpoint has a graph looking at parental unemployment, which is sharply up:

However, clearly student self-reported emotional health has been declining steadily for decades.  This quote from the NYT story offers a clue:
Students know their generation is likely to be less successful than their parents’, so they feel more pressure to succeed than in the past,” said Jason Ebbeling, director of residential education at Southern Oregon University. “These days, students worry that even with a college degree they won’t find a job that pays more than minimum wage, so even at 15 or 16 they’re thinking they’ll need to get into an M.B.A. program or Ph.D. program.
Indeed, if we look at this graph, it's very telling:

Students report a stronger drive to achieve, but worse emotional health.

This makes sense in terms of broader trends in the US economy.  With an employment population ratio that's been sliding for years, especially amongst the uneducated, and the trends of technology and globalization that drive that showing no immediate signs of retrenchment, college is more than ever a lifeline.  Fail to get a degree, and prospects are getting more miserable by the year.  Succeed, and you at least have a shot at a middle class life.

Students know this, and the scramble to get into college and do well is getting more serious, and more stressful, with each passing decade.


Paul Yarbles said...

This is sad. But it is inevitable given the lack of political awareness of the American people.

Three quick comments:

1. It's amazing -- to me at least -- how quickly it's becoming conventional wisdom that the future living standards of Americans will be worse than the present and immediate past. Not that I disagree with this wisdom.

2. The promise of globalization for Americans - summed up in the phrase "a rising tide lifts all boats" - has turned out to be a false one. The fact that Americans quietly accept it as fact instead of holding the political, business, journalistic, and academic elites who promoted it accountable shows how distracted with political and entertainment side-shows we have become.

3. This emotional pain is one of the costs of creating a super-rich aristocracy. Does anyone really expect young people to be happy as they travel the road to serfdom?

TiradeFaction said...

Of course we're stressed out (I say we since I'm 21, college age). With an ever decreasing living standard, ever increasing work hours to look forward to, and ever rising expenses of needed higher education, you can bet mental illness will rise.

Stuart Staniford said...

Tirade - got any stories from your peers to add human color to the stats?

Adam Schuetzler said...

The meritocracy turned out as the man who coined the term expected - dominated completely by the rich. The rich can afford better education, and now degrees (if not always ability) are necessary for higher positions, so education is the only way into the shrinking middle class. In America, even education at state schools must be paid for by the student somehow, and prices are high and rising, so the rich are advantaged by this as well. There is no living wage down below, and even college grads are often just barely getting by - I have a friend with a biology degree, works at a hospital, makes around $35,000 a year. That doesn't build wealth and pay of loans, unless you live at home with low or no rent, which is what he's doing now.

I myself am back at grad school after being unable to find a job that would pay me decently. At this point being a poor grad student is much better than being a poor underemployed non-student and I at least have a shot at something more. I just started and am trying to get all future semesters covered by scholarships or TA work.

To be honest, I expect to always be much poorer than my parents for many reasons, and very few of my friends expect to reach the same level of material wealth as their parents. I can think of one that is definitely better off, but when we were both about 20 his family was living in a trailer, so take that as you will.

There may be younger people making money hand over fist but I don't know them (I don't know anyone in finance or business, though). Even my friends from MIT don't seem to have that much, though 2 of the 3 I keep up with are grad students so that's expected.

Stuart Staniford said...


You have my sympathy. I know from working for Silicon Valley startups - most of them (at least all the ones I've worked for or with) stopped hiring college grads with the 2000 crash. Since then, the pattern has been a bunch of thirty-something or older engineers in California together with a bunch of young guys at some outsourcer in India or Pakistan.

I assume the larger companies - Google and the like - must still hire college grads.

Anonymous said...

My anecdotes:

I graduated with my BS in computer engineering in 1998 -- just in time to get some experience during the boom -- and haven't had much trouble finding good work since then.

A small company I worked for last year had a tech staff of one 20-something intern, three 30+ engineers, one in his fifties and one in his seventies(!), and some work outsourced to India.

Company before that was 10 30+ engineers and two in their twenties.

Many of the people I know my age are in school -- either for the first time or for a graduate degree. Some of them are working service jobs on the side, some are living off their loans. Quite a few have saved a few thousand dollars and are trying to get a business started.

TiradeFaction said...

Sorry it took so long to respond Stuart, but haven't had regular internet access as of late.

In terms of personal stories, I don't really have anything too different when you read personal accounts from the students themselves. Emotional duress over never ending increases in tuition fees, uncertainty about their personal economic futures, and security, lack of access to basic necessities, such as the ability to live independently, (Many are still living home years after graduating), access to adequate and necessary health care, and the list goes on. Unfortunately I've already known a few who have committed suicide, and I doubt they 'll be the last. I do wish they would have used such despair though towards something more constructive, like the British students are doing...