Economic stress trickles down to incoming freshman

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It seems that not even incoming freshman are immune from economic gloom.  According to a recent major survey, our newest college students are entering higher learning with historically low levels of optimism about the job market and historically high levels of stress.  The recently released 2010 CIRP Freshman Survey (The American Freshman: National Norms 2010) is closely watched because it polls over 200,000 incoming freshman, and has been collecting data about their wellbeing for 25 years.

To contextualize these findings within the Penn community, I spoke to Dr. William Alexander, who directs the CAPS student counseling program at Penn.  (CAPS didn’t participate directly in the survey, but Dr. Alexander offered to compare his own experience with the survey data).

Two trends stood out in this year’s results.  First, the disparity in reported mental wellbeing between men and women has widened.  Following a longstanding trend, the research found that “women were far less likely to report high levels of emotional health.”  Dr. Alexander confirmed that at Penn there’s a similar split in those that seek counseling, with CAPS seeing about 60% women and 40% men.  But the national survey found that the gap between men and women is only widening—in some categories, very rapidly.  Compared to the men, more than twice as many women reported feeling frequently “overwhelmed by all I have to do.”

Second, the researchers found that the recent recession and continuing high unemployment seem to be casting a pall even over these young students.  A record number report having one or both parents unemployed, and two-thirds of all incoming freshman agreed that “the current economic situation significantly affected my college choice.”

The state of the job market (and perhaps watching their parents search for work) seems to have left many with little optimism about their post-graduation prospects.  And the challenge is only intensified for Penn students looking for an edge in such a competitive, pre-professional atmosphere.  Dr. Alexander says that students here have much more immediate job concerns.  “It’s not just employment after graduation,” he says.  “They’re worried about finding summer internships, which have certainly become much more competitive” in the past five years.

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