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Top 5 Problems When Starting College

All young people carry their own unique history, strengths, and needs with them. Some have a history of seemingly successive successes, developing strengths and character traits that have prepared them well for the next stage in their life: the transition to adulthood. Others may be earlier in the process of developing a sense of identity, while still others may still be seeking a sense of identity, having encountered difficult obstacles in their development such as family break-ups, classroom bullying, substance use, and struggles with mental or physical health.

What each young person shares in common is the inescapable fact that all late adolescents confront new challenges as they move forward into the next phase of life, especially if they are transitioning to a college setting. At times, the process seems clear, straightforward, and understandable. At other times, however, the path seems uncertain and gives rise to an anxiety-ridden and even downright scary sense of disorientation.

Fortunately, we now better understand these challenges and how to better help prepare these emerging adults. Each spring, Rock Springs offers a supportive group for college-bound youth, which we call College Sanity 101. In our time together, we look ahead to what these young people will encounter on college campuses, and I help them cultivate a sense of preparation and readiness. In working with these individuals, I have discovered a common set of challenging factors at play, many of which are unique to this generation of students:

  1. Gaining admission to college is harder than ever, and then you have to figure out how to pay for it! After the grueling college application process, many students are already worn down from the intense effort of applying to college, including a process that increasingly includes a years-long strategy to model themselves into ideal candidates. For some, this fraught process has included expensive and time-consuming help from tutors and consultants which, while potentially helpful for admission, often has the unintended effect of adding fuel to the fire of anxiety surrounding the process. Once admission is earned and a final decision made, there is still the mind-boggling prospect of determining how to pay for college: college tuition costs have increased 46% in the past 15 years.

  2. Young people entering college today grew up in a recession and have experienced economic uncertainty in a way that recent generations did not. These students have witnessed—either in their direct experience, on the news, or just in the cultural air that they breathe—job insecurity, job losses, and young people like themselves struggling to launch careers as they compete with more highly qualified professionals who have lost their jobs elsewhere. This climate exacerbates young people’s fears that they need to know “what they want to be when they grow up,” and know it now!! It also fuels anxieties about the absolute importance of excelling academically from the moment they set foot on campus, further increasing the pressure they feel to perform highly when they arrive.

  3. The ubiquity of social media makes social comparing and self-judgment even easier than in the past. There is a lack of authenticity in many social media posts that makes it seem on the surface that peers are leading charmed lives, always happy, always smiling. This can make the teen who is feeling lonely or isolated believe that she is even more of an anomaly than she already believes herself to be, even though she is far from alone!

  4. The technology currently available can make it ever harder to unplug, decompress, and take care. There is a frenetic feeling of being “always on” that appears to contribute to increased anxiety & greater challenge with finding down time. With the increased pressures mentioned above, carving out time and space to decompress is more important than ever, yet more elusive than ever.

  5. Mental health problems on college campuses have increased alarmingly, due to a variety of factors (including #1-4, above!). More than 80% of college students report feeling overwhelmed by all they have to do in the past year. One in four college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition in the past year, and more than 50% report overwhelming anxiety that makes it hard for them to succeed academically. These sobering statistics make clear that today’s college students will certainly have friends or acquaintances struggling with some mental health issue, even if they themselves do not experience such a challenge.

With all of these factors at play, you can see why some young people might have difficulty setting off for college, or settling in once they arrive! While college is still a time of great hope and excitement for most young adults, upon arrival on campus the potential drastically increases for reinforcing any underlying sense of anxiety, becoming overwhelmed, and then developing a sense of isolation or engaging in risky behaviors.

This is why we developed College Sanity 101, for college-bound youth to have a time and place to think intentionally about their plans for taking care of themselves in college. It’s a program where we share information and psycho-education about the inescapable challenges ahead and help equip them with strategies for handling the inevitable bumps in the road. We want to help them reflect consciously and conscientiously on their aspirations, hopes, and dreams for their college experience, not in admissions-essay language but in terms of the practical realities of actual college life. We creatively explore the values & intentions that serve as anchors for heathy decision-making, and we offer tangible skills and strategies for navigating the course ahead, even when there are turbulent times.

With support and encouragement, our youth can grow and thrive in college, while learning invaluable skills for staying balanced and healthy, even in stressful circumstances. We will all benefit from having a generation of leaders prepared to care for themselves, one another, and the world around us!

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