Despite the much-vaunted rise (or at least presence) of Massive Open Online Courses, an ever-increasing number of young people are pursuing the traditional college experience, complete with dorms, dining halls, and frat parties. These days, almost everyone agrees that college is a necessity for young people hoping for a successful career.
The whole thing is, honestly, kind of scary. Every year we take thousands of 18-year-olds, throw them together with thousands of other newly minted adults in a more or less isolated little world, and see what happens. For students, parents, and even college administrators, it’s a time of high anxiety. What does an 18-year-old eat and drink and do when she suddenly has more freedom than ever before and a brand-new social world to fit into? How much can a parent call or text without turning into a dreaded helicopter parent? What can we do to help kids who are the first in their families to go to college, or who face extra burdens because their race, or class, or religion sets them apart on campus?
Researchers (who, of course, often have a convenient supply of test subjects playing Frisbee outside their office windows) have some useful things to tell us about the transition to college. Studies show that freshman year brings a number of threats to students’ health, social well-being, and academic performance, but also that there are ways to help them thrive.
IT'S NOT THE "FRESHMAN 15"—BUT WEIGHT GAIN REMAINS A REAL ISSUE...
Popular wisdom says that a new college student will gain, on average, 15 pounds. Wrong! The average college freshman gains something closer to five pounds, according to this meta-analysis, which looked at 24 published papers on the topic. Still, that’s enough to spark potential health issues, particularly since teenagers with weight problems often become overweight or obese adults. (Also: That average includes the minority of freshmen who lose weight, so the increase for the typical freshman could be significantly more.) Some of the most common factors in freshman-year weight gain include reduced physical activity, high junk-food consumption, and increased stress. For women, heavy workloads can lead to extra pounds, while for men, high alcohol consumption is the bigger risk factor.
—“The ‘Freshman 5’: A Meta-Analysis of Weight Gain In the Freshman Year of College,” Rachel Vella-Zarb, R. and Elgar, F., Journal of American College Health, 2009.
AND THERE ARE OTHER HEALTH RISKS TOO.
In the first year of college, students drink more, smoke more pot, and have sex with more partners than they did in senior year of high school. On the other hand, they’re less likely to gamble, drive drunk, commit property crimes, or behave aggressively than they did the previous year. College housing can also affect behavior: Those who live in private dorms—which are usually less supervised than university dorms—are the most likely to ramp up their drinking. That’s particularly significant since the young people who choose to live in private dorms are typically the ones who already drank more than their peers in high school. Those living with family drink, on average, only a bit more than they did the previous year. White students are more at risk for most of these dangerous behaviors, while students from rural backgrounds are especially likely to drink, drive drunk, and be more sexually promiscuous.
—“Behavioral Risks During the Transition From High School to College,” Fromme, K., Corbin, W., and Kruse, M., Developmental Psychology, 2008.
TIES TO FAMILY CAN HELP STUDENTS ADJUST...
Ironically, just as students are moving away from home and into the dorms, they can suddenly become more dependent on their parents for social support. That’s probably because distance strains their ties to friends from home, and they haven’t yet formed strong relationships on campus. Looking at about 150 Canadian students who left home to go to college, this study found that students who feel comfortable counting on their parents have an easier time making the transition than those whose family bonds are strained. If young adults have trusting, emotionally supportive relationships with their parents before leaving home, they tend to maintain that closeness in the early months of college. Such students tend to be more optimistic about the social situations they’ll encounter in college. Strong attachment to mothers (though not to fathers) tracks with decreased loneliness during the first quarter of freshman year.
—“Attachment to Parents, Social Support Expectations, and Socioemotional Adjustment During the High School-College Transition,” Journal of Research on Adolescence, 1998.
...BUT FAMILY DOESN'T REMOVE THE STING OF RACISM.
Black and Hispanic students face a particular set of challenges in making the transition to college and are more likely to leave before getting a degree than their white and Asian counterparts. One reason is that these students are most likely to be the first generation in their families to attend college; they also face steeper financial difficulties in paying for school. Most students of color attend predominantly white colleges, and campuses can sometimes feel unwelcoming to them. Looking at a survey of nearly 4,000 freshmen that sampled black, white, Asian, and Hispanic students equally, this study found that black students in particular often report experiences of racism, which, unsurprisingly, can discourage them from staying in school. All students are more likely to enjoy and stick with college if they have good relationships with other students; for black students, participating in formal extracurricular activities is strongly associated with persevering at college.
—“Settling Into Campus Life: Differences by Race/Ethnicity in College Involvement and Outcomes,” Fischer, M., the Journal of Higher Education, 2007.
BUT THERE ARE WAYS TO SMOOTH THE TRANSITION.
Directly addressing differences in students’ backgrounds—in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other characteristics—seems to help them navigate these issues. Specifically, an orientation event with incoming freshmen that highlighted the experiences of first-generation college students made a measurable difference in such students’ behavior; in this study, a panel of juniors and seniors discussed their social-class backgrounds as part of a conversation about the college experience. For example, a first-generation student explained that he had needed to rely on his adviser more than most students, since his parents didn’t have the experience with college they would have needed to help him navigate school. Compared with a control group that only heard generalized advice, first-generation freshmen who received an explicit message about the different needs of students from different backgrounds ended up being more likely to seek out resources on campus. They also had better psychological and social adjustment than the control group and were more likely to end up with higher grade-point averages at the end of the year.
—“Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap: A Difference-Education Intervention Improves First-Generation Students’ Academic Performance and All Students’ College Transition,” Stephens, N., Hamedani, M. and Destin, M., Psychological Science, 2014.
Five Studies is Pacific Standard’s biweekly column that identifies and analyzes the best academic research to deliver new insights on human behavior.