The cost of higher education?

Joe Rowles

Palms sweat, hearts race and all eyes are on the clock as the professor hands out an exam that will determine a whopping 40 percent of the students’ final grade.

Such is the typical last week of class in college campuses across the country, where 15 weeks of learning often become defined by one days attendance and performance. It can be a bit overwhelming for first-time students to be thrown into the sink-or-swim lifestyle of college, in which projects, assignments and exams mount in the semesters final weeks.

So it should come as no surprise that some students entering their first year of college undergo a decrease in their emotional health so severe that nearly three out of 10 say they were so depressed that it was difficult to function. Balancing the requirements of academic demands, financial realities, social and extracurricular activities can push many students to their very limit, Ed Michaels of Northern Michigan University’s counseling center said. There is a great deal of pressure to add to a resume.

“A huge stressor is ‘what I have to do on top of what is required of me to get a decent position when I get out of here,’” Michaels said. “It’s really a triple play, that they feel they need to perform well. To be haunted by ‘what will it take to get a job when I get out of here.’

“The demands are rough.”

The weight of expectations is something that faces most collegians. In a survey polling over 150,000 incoming freshman called the American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015 the No. 1 reason for attending a college was to attain “a better job” after graduation.

It was a factor for sophomore English major Elizabeth Fust, who hopes to go into publishing or become a literary agent after she receives her degree.

“NMU was the best school for scholarships and tuition rate,” Fust said. “[It] had a really good writers program.”

Scholarships and tuition cost are huge stressors for incoming freshmen. Over half the students polled had “some to a major” concern about their ability to finance their education. It’s an economic reality when tuition costs have increased by 1,120 percent since 1978.

Days of swinging in a hammock and enjoying a day off were not part of Tessin’s months between high school and college. Summer was a time to work four jobs, the freshman public relations major said.

“Money is a big factor,” Tessin said. “I stress about it every now and then, just how after college I’m going to have to pay all this off.”

Becoming aware of the financial aid available to students can be a huge help, Mike Rotundo, director of NMU’s Financial Aid Office, said. With the dollars out of sight and out of mind, a student can get back to focusing on the academic side of college. Payment plans, private and donor scholarships and a side job are all options.

“Your time is a resource,” Rotundo said. “I’d be moving the chess pieces.

“With anything you do it’s the amount of work you put in.”

Beyond the stress that economics can cause students are a myriad of other factors, such as juggling time. Learning to study was the biggest challenge Tessin faced when she first arrived at NMU, as she hadn’t needed to before. For many this is the first time they have had true flexibility over their entire schedule, and that can be a bit overwhelming.

“There is a lot to do,” Fust said. “I wish there was more time to do everything.”

The combination of all the aforementioned factors can really grind on a student, which explains why students in the poll rated their own emotional health at the lowest rate it’s ever been. The idea that a degree, activities and job experience aren’t good enough is a major factor, Michaels said. That combined with the jump in demands from high school student to the college level can be very taxing.

“There is a lot of learning that must take place,” Michaels said. “If you don’t, you’re not going to do well.”

Michaels also cites the move from a childhood home as very traumatic. Many students go from a place where they’ve lived their entire lives to somewhere completely new. An entire identity is wiped clean and started anew. There are stresses associated with it.

“You get a chance to reinvent yourself, and a chance to stand on your own two feet,” Michaels said.

There are resources available to assist a student in the transition. NMU offers a First Year Experience class and other supporting programs to aid incoming freshmen. The counseling center is also free to all.