Across Colleges of All Types, Student Anxiety Is a Growing Issue

College admissions is a different field than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. High school guidance counselors still help hundreds of students make a plan for after graduation. Students still try to get into the best college they can.

But they are now more cost-conscious, their families hire private college counselors, and they are much more anxious and stressed. Private high school counselors and college counselors both confront student anxiety more. Their jobs have expanded to deal with students anxious about the future.

Counselors disagree about the extent of the change and why students are more anxious. The type and causes of anxiety also differ depending on what type of college students attend. But higher education is devoting more time and money to student anxiety than in the recent past.

Private counselors have become much more notable since the Varsity Blues scandal, where wealthy parents turned to consultant Rick Singer to bribe colleges and get their children admitted.

When speaking with private counselors, though, they talk less about conquering the SAT and more about getting students to think about what they want in life.

Test prep, for instance, isn’t such a big emphasis anymore. As more universities go test-optional, what matters more is getting students to set goals and figure out which colleges fit them. Allen Koh, the CEO of Cardinal Education in California’s Silicon Valley, generally sees two clusters of students: Those who aim for elite schools and those who want to have a great college experience. But they don’t always know what they want.

“I think students are more rudderless than ever before because they have more freedom than ever before,” Koh said in a Martin Center interview. Students have so many options for college, with some applying to more than a dozen schools. Without a steady hand, they can’t clarify their thoughts and then get overwhelmed by the college search. They need to calm down and dwell on what they want their future to look like.

“Value formation is the centerpiece of college advising…helping kids architect their own values,” Koh said. “If you have values, then you can actually set some goals or values for yourself.”

If students don’t already have a solid foundation of their values, they can develop anxiety. It may be one of the reasons why college counseling is a growing industry.

College counseling has grown rapidly, with its revenue hitting $1.88 billion in 2018, a 58 percent increase from a decade ago, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. About 17,000 college consultants were in business in 2019, compared to 2,000 in 2005, according to The Wall Street Journal.

While many college counselors offer some scholarships or free counseling for poor families, the typical student is wealthy, though more middle-class students are hiring help, too.

That expanded clientele means that student anxiety isn’t a problem for only highly selective schools like the Ivy League. It’s a problem at less-selective public colleges and community colleges, too.

“That’s the biggest change I’ve seen in my career,” John Saparilas, associate vice president of enrollment services at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina, said in a Martin Center interview. He has spent more than two decades in admissions and counseling, primarily in community colleges.

The pressure to have a high school experience that looks attractive to college admissions officers is an issue as well.

“There’s too much pressure on 9th graders and 10th graders to really be navigating school with an eye to college admissions,” said Jake Rosen, founder and lead coach at Launchpad Coaching in Philadelphia, in a Martin Center interview. “It’s just too much too soon.”

“Living on social media has not necessarily been good for mental health,” Rosen said. The pressure and competition students feel to get into the best school weighs them down. Even when students are out of school, social pressure follows them home.

“There’s a lot more anxiety and depression and pressure and school avoidance or concerns about bullying and the effects of social media, and it’s changed a lot, even since I was a high school student,” Rosen said. “The kids who are in school now are in a different world. They do seem, in a broader sense, to be struggling with it and dealing with more mental health issues than students were, you know, when I was in high school.”

Anxious students don’t lose their anxiety after they get accepted, either.

In a study that looked at why students have become more anxious, Chris C. Martin, a sociologist at Georgia Tech, found that college counselors pointed to social change, helicopter parenting, competitiveness, and “thwarted distinctiveness” (being able to stand out from the crowd) as driving anxiety. Counselors disagreed about whether the changes were dramatic or whether some students simply felt anxiety more acutely.

“Counselors noted that the purpose of college had changed: education was now linked with the pursuit of economic success,” Martin wrote.

More involvement from parents has left students less prepared for an independent life.

Counselors told Martin that students have gotten more competitive with each other. Their parents, too, have gotten more intense about pushing students to get into better schools and accomplish more. More involvement from parents has left students less prepared for an independent life.

One counselor told Martin that students are “more vulnerable, they’re more frail, they’re more susceptible to anxiety experiences and I think this is not just happening to students but to the general population.”

Many students are inculcated with what Martin calls “an undercurrent of perfectionism.” They’re trying to get their lives “meticulously plotted,” Martin wrote. But students, no matter how smart, cannot avoid all failures and get the predictability they want.

As anxiety becomes more common, colleges have adapted. They’ve become better about catering to students, before and after admission.

One way is to make sure students understand a college and what students it educates before they apply. “We do a lot of work with high school counselors and that has actually increased over the last few years,” said Stephanie Whaley, assistant vice chancellor and director for admissions at East Carolina University.

ECU hosts high school counselor workshops in five locations across North Carolina so counselors know what ECU expects of students and can better steer the students they advise. The school also has recruiters in Raleigh, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and other cities that reliably send large numbers of high school graduates to Greenville.

Wake Tech offers counseling services to figure out what students want and whether they would be a good fit at the school. They’ve also provided more resources to students after they’re admitted. Wake Tech provides “wraparound services for students,” Saparilas noted, with a food bank, wellness counselors, a rally fund for emergency grants, and, with remote classes since COVID-19 shut down colleges, lending out laptops.

“A lot of our students are like a house of cards, and you pull out one card, and the whole house falls down,” Saparilas said. With family and work obligations outside of class, the stress and anxiety at community colleges can be very different from a 20-year-old student at a selective university.

“There’s a lot more resources now than there were when I started in 1994, let me put it that way. There’s an awareness of the need to help these students when they come in, and not just admit them and let them just flounder,” Saparilas said.

Not all students struggle to cope with anxiety. However, it is common; a 2018 report from the American College Health Association found that 63 percent of college students felt “overwhelming anxiety” in the last year and 23 percent of students were diagnosed or treated for anxiety. It’s not an easy fix, either. Parents, colleges, and students themselves all have a role to play in alleviating anxiety and teaching students how to cope with the stress of life.

Whether during admissions or while students earn their degree, anxiety will be a long-term, not a short-term, issue for colleges.

Anthony Hennen is managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.