Tips for Parents

Statistics Show Stressed Students May Need Extra Support Transitioning to College

By Jason Shueh

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A rising trend of incoming college freshmen who reported feeling overwhelmed as high school seniors is sparking concern that more students will have difficulty transitioning to college life.

According to an annual survey of incoming freshmen nationwide by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), based at the University of California-Los Angeles, the percentage of incoming first-year college students who said they frequently felt overwhelmed during their senior year of high school increased from 28.5 percent in 2011 to 30.4 percent in 2012.

For women, the survey reported an all-time record high of 40.5 percent who felt overwhelmed, the highest percentage of freshman women since the question was first introduced in 1985. Men were at 18.5 percent.

“Unfortunately, students who report frequently feeling overwhelmed the year before entering college are less likely to have a positive picture of their abilities,” the survey reported, referring to both social and academic abilities for success.

The survey showed a link to students’ emotional health as well. Freshmen who reported feeling frequently overwhelmed in high school were also less likely to report high emotional well-being compared to those who did not.

While results don’t indicate frequently overwhelmed students won’t graduate, they do emphasize a need to ensure high schools, universities, and of course parents, offer students the support and tools required to thrive their first year at college. In a CIRP release, Laura Palucki Blake, the report’s co-author and CIRP assistant director, called for immediate action.

“These findings underscore the need for colleges to provide and promote resources that support students’ health and wellness as soon as they arrive on campus,” Blake said.

What Does this Mean for My Student?

Initial reaction to the survey’s report may lead parents to feel a little overwhelmed themselves, it is not all bad news.

In fact, the most recent projections from the United States Department of Education show an increase in the estimated number of bachelor degrees, increasing from roughly 1.7 million in the 2011-12 school year, to about 2 million by the end of 2022.

And despite the high percentage of women who report feeling frequently overwhelmed, the Education Department reported that women will continue to lead the way in degrees earned, increasing from roughly a million in the 2011-12 school year, to more than 1.1 million by the end of 2022 — compared to men estimated at roughly 775,000 in 2011-12 and increasing to about 820,000 by 2022.

Though good news, the data may seem contradictory. What the projections don’t show are the number of students who will need remedial classes, counseling, or have to extend schooling in order to graduate — a result that would likely raise student debt.

According to the Education Department’s most recent statistics, the percent of first-year undergraduate students enrolled in institutions of higher education who reported taking remedial courses has gradually risen from 19.3 percent during the 2003-04 school year to 20.4 percent of students in 2007-08.

A quick look at mental health statistics shows a slightly rising shift in the number of students seeking counseling after they begin college. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health 2012 Report, 16.1 percent of 81,000 students at 120 different colleges and universities reported attending counseling after starting college. These students had not previously sought or attended counseling.

Though a rough college transition may flare up at first or simmer a bit in a college student’s first few semesters; ultimately, the end result of a rough transition might not be seen until graduation day. The CIRP survey reported that the vast majority, 84.3 percent, of incoming first-year students believed they would graduate from college in four years. Sadly, this expectation will only be realized for approximately half of them since the schools surveyed on average only graduate 40.6 percent of their students in four years.

“Clearly there is a mismatch between reality and expectations,” the CIRP survey reported. Parents can play a role in bridging that gap.

TIPS: How can I Help with College Transition?

Parents may assume the answer to a smooth college transition might be to rush in to the rescue; or, taking it from an opposite angle, create a barricade of tough love and a do-it-yourself attitude.

Experts say the solution is balance between the two.


“There are times when parents should step in, but those times are limited.  If the student has a serious illness, is severely depressed, or for some other reason is incapable of making appropriate decisions, parents can contact (university) staff to discuss their concerns,” said Author Marjorie Savage, in her book You’re On Your Own (But I’m Here if Your Need Me).

She stresses that classrooms should be off limits to parents, a relationship that should only exist between the instructor and student. Making phone calls, sending emails, or any attempts to micromanage academics with instructors will only lead to a lack of growth for the student and likely irritation from their instructor.

“College is a time when students should be learning to speak for themselves; they should by now be capable of talking with authority figures,” Savage said.


In a comparison of high school to college, the University of Minnesota Duluth reported in its website that its students should expect growing challenges.

For example, in high school students had parents and teachers to remind them of their responsibilities while in college they must balance responsibilities and set priorities for themselves.

Equally important, the university outlined that its incoming students would likely have to face both moral and ethical decisions they’d never had to face before. Teaching students how to weigh pros and cons to a decision before they go college is best. While they’re at college, walking them through the pros and cons then offering them an opportunity to make a decision is another good method.


Teaching time management in high school by allowing your student more oversight of both personal and family projects is great preparation for college.

“The most important lesson a college student can learn is to balance studying, social, and personal time,” Savage said.

According to the US News’ Professor Guide, by Lynn Jacobs and Jeremy Hyman, students can prepare for college life by taking responsibility for their high school life. Examples of relevant tasks include learning to schedule assignments, keeping a time log to see how long specific academic tasks take, finishing assignments in advance, planning to do things once instead of piecemeal and using long breaks such as summer to hone academic skills while also having fun.


In a September 2012 article of US News, Brian Harke, dean of students at the University of Southern California, suggested that a better way for parents to offer support to their students as they make the transition to college and adult life is to offer counseling through analysis.

Instead of playing the role of fix-it parents, Harke suggested parents throw questions back to their students by asking what action might make sense and what college resources are available. After the conversation, Harke said parents should give the student about 24 hours to work on the problem before Mom and Dad check in to see how things went.

“In my experience, the situation will usually work itself out, or [students realize] that they can deal with it on their own,” Harke said.


The CIRP report found that those students who decided to turn toward positive and healthy university activities were either able to overcome their problems or decrease the effects of them.

“Involvement in college might actually be an effective way to bolster students’ academic and social self-concepts as well as buffer lower levels of emotional health, if students participate in activities that research has shown are associated with academic success,” the CIRP report stated.

One way to support first-year college students is for parents to familiarize themselves with their student’s university services such as the tutoring center, academic support, school counselors and other mental health professionals as well as extracurricular involvement.

“Although parents’ influence is limited at the college level, students are not entirely on their own,” Savage said. With a few guiding nudges — and a bit of parental faith — your stressed student can increase his or her chances of success.

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