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Non-cognitive Experiences, Mental Health, and Academic Progress

November 17-18, 2006
University of the Sacred Heart and the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Dorothy Valle, Assistant for Enrollment Management, The College of New Rochelle

My first position at The College of New Rochelle (CNR) was with the Graduate School, where I worked for four years. I’ve just completed my third year with the undergraduate School of Arts and Science. I didn’t realize when I began my new position how different it would be.

Most of the students in graduate school were my age, and many were classmates. Their issues and concerns were familiar to me. It seemed we were always pressed for time. Our concerns were how to juggle school, family, and jobs.

The School of Arts and Science is very different with different student concerns and experiences. Many are first generation college students. At times, they think their parents don’t understand why they’re overwhelmed or stressed and not performing as expected. Or, their parents have other pressing concerns and are unable to be supportive.

Others do not have the freedom to concentrate on their studies. And the only difference between them and graduate students is that they’re younger women — women who face many of the same challenges as graduate students do. They too, have multiple responsibilities. Some are single parents, or about to become a parent. They too, have family issues to contend with and financial problems. Many seem to have lost their youthful spirit. They are young women trying to cope with the same anxieties that most adults have a hard time with, except they do not have the life experience and knowledge needed to successfully combine so many challenging roles. The obstacles they face in trying to better their lives are diverse and challenging. They range from financial difficulties, poor high school preparation, family matters, choice of majors, and homesickness, etc. Should they forget education for a time, go to work, earn salaries, and stay home with their families?

Some have been impressed with a family doctor, a social worker, or veterinarian and have decided to major in the sciences, but their grades are prohibitive. And when anxiety and pressure begin to affect their ability to cope it is initially recognized in poor academic performance and self-esteem.

Others are under pressure from parents and extended families to know what they want to become before they begin college. After all, it costs a good bit of money to send a child to college. Indeed, as one student put it, “We were told in high school that we should know what we wanted to be by the time we graduated from high school.”

Some are subjected to different pressures: Their parents have high goals and expectations for them, and in some instances, set goals that are not the student’s. It’s hard to aim for a law or medical degree and follow in dad or mom’s footsteps if that is not where their interests lie.

Then there are students who want to make their parents and grandparents proud. They know the sacrifices being made on their behalf, and realize they’re being given a gift that past generations were not as fortunate to receive. That is a pleasant thing to see.

Although these factors are non-cognitive and usually not considered mental illness, they do take a toll on students’ mental health, and can lead to a self-perception of being unworthy, or not college material, and many begin to question their dreams and aspirations.

Keith Anderson, Staff Psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute comments:

At the inception of the earliest counseling centers in the late 1930’s our efforts were focused on resolving vocational and educational problems. . . . Today we are faced with an ever-increasing demand for mental health services from student bodies that also require a wider range of counseling and support services than ever before. The number of students coming to campus with concurrent psychological problems has grown dramatically (2).

With mental health issues for college students so prevalent as to be the focus of media attention and headlines country wide, more and more campuses now consider the availability of mental health counseling a necessity for students throughout the country.

Morton M. Silverman, MD, Sr. Advisor to the National Suicide Prevention Technical Resource Center, believes that leaving home and “Going off to college is a developmental milestone” (15). Students arrive “at an unfamiliar place where higher academic standards increase pressure,” and can “deepen depression or heighten anxiety. . . .and alcohol and other drugs are more likely to be available” (15).

Ken Marsh, Dir. of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Arizona observes some of the trends, or human behaviors, that are prevalent on today’s campuses: According to Dr. Marsh, “How we respond to these five trends can have a significant impact on higher education and can influence how our next generation of leaders will conduct themselves” (3).

1. Serious emotional problems are seen on campus with greater frequency In the spring 2003 the National College Health Assessment found that of (19,497 college students on 33 campuses), two out of three students reported “feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do,” and over half reported “feeling things were hopeless”’ at least once during the year. More than one in three reported “feeling so depressed it was difficult to function.” Almost one in ten reported “seriously considering attempting suicide” and over 1% reported “attempting suicide.” (3)

2. Campuses struggle to respond to this increased demand
…What are colleges and universities going to do about increased demand for services and accommodations, and the public health/community psychiatry issues these trends highlight? …Will the “millennial” students expect/demand services beyond the scope currently available on today’s campuses? Will their parents, accustomed to “advocating” for their children throughout childhood, advocate for enhanced campus services for their now-adult children? (3) …

3. Campus violence
The public perception of higher education often includes idealized images of a casual lifestyle, a few classes which meet occasionally, lots of partying, plenty of time for socializing, a relaxed transition to adulthood before having to face the real world.… That’s what college is supposed to be. The reality is that campus violence is a reflection of the violence we find in our society. . . . What happens off campus, can happen on campus. (4)

4. The erosion of civility, the diminution of social skills, and the number of students exhibiting “social disconnect” present additional challenges
“This trend has three parts, each one more problematic than the one before. The three are superficially related to one another, the common element being some degree of social deficit” …(5).

Erosion of civility

“Increasing numbers of students disrupt classes by reading a newspaper or magazine during lectures, talking on cell phones while the professor speaks, and even eating in class…. This is erosion of civility … we seem to be losing a sense of respect for the rights of others around us” (5).

Lack of social skills

“We also note the arrival on campus of students with psychological disabilities, including … Asperger’s syndrome…. They may be unaware that they are dominating a classroom discussion. They may be unaware of what it means when, in that same discussion, the person seated next to them sighs heavily and rolls their eyes…. These students may have difficulties … but they typically need coaching and advice rather than psychotherapy” (5).

Social Disconnect

“The ‘social disconnect’ students may be… mistaken for students with Asperger’s…. However, … [they] quickly reveal their differences. They are limited not only in their ‘social sensitivity’ but… in their ability to modulate their expression of emotion. They disrupt the classroom, the residence hall, the campus community. They may come to the attention of campus police or the Dean of Students . . .” (5). …

5. Responding to the issue of college student suicide
“Statistical evidence indicates that the suicide rate among college students is fractionally lower than it is for non-college peers, suggesting there may be some ‘protective effect’ to going to college. However, there is no comfort in statistics when we face the tragic reality of the suicide of a specific student. . . . Attempts to find the suicidal student ‘in time’ keep campus personnel awake nights on every campus in the country” (6). …

After the suicides of two students at the University of Arizona, “students, aided by the grieving family, established the Jed Foundation, which itself created a website (Ulifeline.org) that is unique among all mental health websites: it was established ‘by college students, for college students, about college student mental health’ ” (Marsh 6).

“The Jed Foundation … has made [the site] available to colleges across the nation, at no cost to the institutions” (Marsh 6). …

With colleges already experiencing budget constraints, where do they find the resources to address these challenges? And how do they fulfill the requirement of reasonable accommodations as referenced in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504)? (ADA Fact Sheet 1). This is a dilemma that affects all colleges and universities.

Mary Jane England, MD, President of Regis College says, “We must be creative about where and how to get the resources to do this” (9). Over 40% of their freshmen are minorities and over 30% of all their students are minorities as well. This “cultural and ethnic diversity” makes them eligible “for a Title III grant from the Federal government,” which has given them two million dollars, enabling them “to work around any disabilities … [that] may exist” (9).

Kevin Kruger, associate executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, suggests: “Outsourcing is not a dirty word, particularly when you look at the budget crisis we have. Counseling centers are going to have to plug into national resources — not to replace campus services, but to supplement them” (2).

One of my responsibilities at CNR is to implement, coordinate, and manage our retention program. In that endeavor, I am frequently in contact with students, faculty, Student Services, and the Counseling Department. We work together in a collaborative effort to provide students with a rich quality of student life.

To identify students at risk, we have a system of Early Alert notices. Since faculty members are usually the first to become aware of students who are having difficulties, they often speak with the student and send me an Early Alert, indicating the problem. A letter is then sent to the student and her advisor. Ideally, the student meets with me, and depending on the situation, a simple discussion about the issue may be sufficient, or she may be referred to the Counseling Department or Learning Support Services.

These Alerts are especially important for first year students. Too often, for one reason or another, they fall behind, and it becomes difficult to catch up as the semester gets too far along. But they are also important for on-going students. Upper-class students, who are increasingly moving ahead, often become ambivalent about leaving school. What will they do after graduation, what will their future be, and what are the financial implications?

Dr. Silverman argues, that juniors and seniors often experience more pressure than undergraduates, as they begin to realize their college time is coming to an end. And, “They are beginning to adopt a ‘work’ mentality” (15).

We like to think of college commencement, with all its pomp and circumstance, parties, fond farewells and jubilant students, as the beginning of new exciting careers. But the reality is some students fear leaving school. It is a bittersweet time for many as they begin to face financial obligations and family pressures. Now, as they leave familiar surroundings and familiar faces, they begin to wonder what they will do, how will they occupy their time, will they get a good job, can they pay their student loans.

Although my job is specifically retention, more than that, it is a conscious effort among my colleagues and me to monitor students’ progress and encourage and help them to graduate, earn their degree, and to leave us as well educated, well-oriented young women.

References

Anderson, Keith J. “Challenges and Opportunities.” Editorial. Spectrum: The Chickering Group March 2004: 2

“Disabilities in Higher Education.” Fact Sheet: Online. April 4, 2006: 1-9 www.las-elc.org/disability_factsheeet.html

England, Mary Jane. “The Campus as Community: Building on Strengths.” Interview by Stephen Caulfield. Spectrum. The Chickering Group. March 2004: 8-12.

Kruger, Kevin. “More Help for Troubled Students.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Marsh, Ken. “Emerging Trends in College Mental Health.” Spectrum. The Chickering Group. March 2004: 3-7.

Silverman, Morton M. “College Student Suicide Prevention: Background and Blueprint for Action.” Spectrum. The Chickering Group. March 2004: 13-19.

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