Generation Z College Students are Struggling on Campus

“Only four more weeks, four more weeks. I think I can make it.” – Jon, 18…“It’s just so much to handle myself.” – Caroline, 18…“I feel like I’ve been thrown to the wolves.” – David, 19

In just a few weeks, a very anxious cohort of Generation Z students will complete their freshman year of college. And they can’t wait. My recent survey among college freshmen at a range of universities and colleges nationwide reveals that Gen Z freshmen are struggling with balancing surprisingly intense academics, first-time independence, social life and work to financially support themselves while attending college. Gen Z students are under major stress, experiencing anxiety at record highs.  Yet the majority mask it with their generally stellar individual achievements, be it academic, athletic, social and political advocacy, creative expression, and in most cases, all of the above.

Born between 1996 and 2010 and currently ages 9 to 23, the majority of students of Generation Z are either considering, applying, attending or graduating from college. Enduring intense pressure and fierce competition to get into one of the colleges of their dreams, Gen Z students face a surprising new challenge once they matriculate: work / life balance as a college student. Among the freshman surveyed, the #1 reason students selected their college was “best program for my major”, yet only 53% feel like they selected the right college.

Survey results indicate students feel academically and socially prepared, but struggle the most with psychological and financial challenges. Only 47% said they feel like they were properly prepared to attend college. With only 47% feeling psychologically prepared, many students face the exasperation of pre-existing and emerging mental health concerns once the pressure builds to challenging levels.

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Responders reported anxiety as the largest mental health concern, giving anxiety an average weight of 62/100 on campus.When asked about the top three leading sources of students’ anxiety, 74% reported balancing life with work and academics as the source of their struggle. Despite being academically prepared, students struggle with academic pressure (68%), future career and professional goals (53%) as well as self-imposed pressure to succeed (53%).

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Students report they are managing this anxiety by finding a niche (53%) with student clubs and friends and drinking or smoking pot (53%). Other methods to manage anxiety include vaping, going home to visit family and hiding in their dorm rooms (37%).

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College students of Generation Z are experiencing significantly more stress than expected. Generation Z is commonly described as a generation who is independent, financially practical, pragmatic, highly driven, socially astute and inclusive, qualities that indicate success when attending college. However, they’ve also grown up in an era filled with high anxiety, financial constraints, high pressure and uncertainty, while simultaneously experiencing global disasters, school shootings, social and political turbulence and effects of the 2008 Great Recession streaming 24/7 on their smartphones.

What can Gen Z, campuses and parents do to help current and future students manage the high anxiety levels of college life? When asked which resources students would like to see more of, 79% of students wanted a stronger sense of community on campus, 47% wanted more individual attention to personal needs and goals, and 47% reported wanting more counseling.

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Creating a stronger sense of community and encouraging counseling are tangible solutions but there’s more we can do both before students matriculate, during the transition to campus life and continue supporting while on campus. College faculty, staff and parents can help this anxious generation by validating the turbulence, easing up on the pressure, encouraging resilience and independence, providing more methods that offer support, and openly communicating in person for the most effective conversations.

We can also guide them towards selecting colleges that are the right fit to them as individuals versus selecting the highest rank, their highest reach or a program for a major chosen based on speculation. Generation Z has so much potential, particularly professionally and academically, but let’s figure out how to be more supportive of them psychologically and personally so they can enjoy attending the “college of their dreams” a little more.

Contact nbnessel@gmail.com for complete survey and results.

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