It's late October. Have you gotten The Call or The Text yet from your college freshman?
As in: I hate it here. No one will sit with me in the dining hall. I'm going to flunk algebra because the teacher has a foreign accent and I can't understand her.
At the University of Pittsburgh, they know all about The Call.
So, too, at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and at schools all over the country dealing with this year's crop of cell-phone wielding, mom-and-dad-texting freshmen students from close families struggling with their first year.
Recently, Anna Klein, a sophomore at Syracuse University in New York state, was riding the campus shuttle when she saw a fellow student sitting alone, crying. An hour or so later, Klein saw another passenger, obviously a student -- also crying.
"And the day before that, I overheard another student say how miserable she was, and that she wanted to drop out, but that she didn't feel she could walk away from this kind of academic opportunity," Klein said, noting that she texted her mother immediately about what she saw.
First-year college anxiety is not new, but for the past decade experts have observed higher numbers of emotional stress among 18-year-olds than in previous generations -- a trend that shows no sign of abating.
Last year, about 10 percent of the 2.6 million students enrolled in 302 institutions sought counseling, according to Robert Gallagher, who has been conducting surveys for the American College Counseling Association since the early 1980s.
In 1988, 58 percent of counseling center directors reported an increase in students with "serious psychological problems." That figure rose to 93.4 percent in 2009, Gallagher said.
There's plenty of blame to go around: child-centered parenting; the much-ballyhooed "helicopter parent," the "coddled," entitled child; a narrowed generation gap increasing family closeness; a culture of high expectations; increased narcissism; cell phones and video chatting.
Indeed, a generation's worth of child-centered parenting has produced families that are extremely close -- but that closeness comes at a price, experts say.
"What happens is these kids become very compliant and exceedingly passive," said Hara Estroff Marano, author of "A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting." "They want answers, they want certainties and have parents who have smoothed out the bumps and lumps for them from a very early age. We weren't brought up the same way. We were allowed to stumble."
Colleges walk a tightrope between diplomacy and toughness when dealing with anxious parents, said Rochelle Calhoun, Skidmore College's dean of students.
"We tell parents that their natural reaction will be to try to fix whatever problem they have, and we say instead, maybe you need to ask your son or daughter what's available on campus to help them figure it out themselves."
All this freshman angst can be expensive: A third of all U.S. college students drop out after their first year. A study released recently by the American Institutes for Research found that federal and state governments spent more than $9 billion on students who dropped out before their sophomore year between 2003 and 2008.
Faced with these numbers, colleges are trying new strategies beyond just a college course on how to use the library.
While most colleges have classes and other programs to help first-year students navigate the campus, they're generally not well-organized and face delivery and duplication issues, said John Gardner, president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education in Brevard, N.C. He tries to help schools develop a master plan for improving the first year experience.
But elaborate classes, seminars and backpacking trips can't always do the trick. Sometimes, only time and patience will cure freshman misery.
(E-mail Mackenzie Carpenter at mcarpenter(at)post-gazette.com. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.)
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