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Going to college and university - What makes students anxious and what can we do about it?

May 17, 2022

Did you go to university or college? Whether or not you did, you likely know someone who has gone, and it is also pretty likely you work there now, if you're reading this. Whatever the case, perhaps we can all agree that starting a major new phase in your life like heading off to university is actually quite a serious and challenging time for many of us.

Oh sure, the Hollywood movie scenes have shown us countless students packing their cars and heading off to college with undented optimism and perfect teeth, to arrive and slot seamlessly into sororities and immediately sipping beer from red cups at Chad Hogan's party. For some, that is the experience, and that's great, but what is the reality?

All change - the anxiety of new situations

You've seen the website, talked to the amazing admissions team, perhaps even visited the campus virtually or physically, and have made your choice. Accepted into not just a course or an institution, but a complete change in your life.

Change in life tends to happen gradually. We learn, grow and develop, and sometimes look back to see how far we have come from. Sometimes, however, change happens all at once, and we need to really understand how major that can be. The social networks around you are not just friends and family, but security and stability. A sense of belonging, to an environment that is safe in its familiarity and predictability.

All of that changes when we go to university. The anxieties this can produce are, according to research, generally underreported. You will find figures of 15 to 30% of students reporting worries about the social transition of going to university, but the reality is that it is far more significant, with more detailed research suggesting that upwards of 60% of pre-college students are anxious about the transition.

Enter any anonymous chat forum of pre-college students, and you see the same thing over and over. Crippling anxiety not about the academic rigours of the course, but quite simply about meeting new people, finding their way around and generally being accepted and not too exposed. Will I like my dorm mates, will I make friends, will I be accepted?

Even the more reported fears of going to university are essentially social. "Running out of money", which is a very common pre-transition fear, is essentially a fear based on there being no social network around you to help. This is all normal and natural, and almost everyone feels it in greater or lesser amounts; responding to it in their own unique way. But are we in danger of just accepting this as something that just exists, or can we do something to help? 

The university response - look after yourself

Having looked at dozens of university and college websites, the main ways they seem to be dealing with this essentially social issue are:

They tell prospective students that there are counsellors, or to register with a GP. All of these things are valid, and undeniably good advice, but they just aren't enough. How many students are admitted to further and higher education, but never make it to class on the first day? How many do begin, but have such an uncomfortable start that they do not stay?

Student retention is a huge challenge, as we all know in this sector. In the UK, non continuation rates hover between 4% and 15%. Though money and attainment are critical factors in this, a growing body of research again confirms that the social aspect is among the most central reason to leave an institution. As this research paper in the Journal of Further and Higher Education put it, "students who frequently considered leaving university without completing their degree (i.e. dropping out) had a significantly lower sense of belonging than students who did not".

We can assuage doubts about grades and academic rigours, and reassure students about earning potential to pay back student debt. We have the data, and we can make the argument. Feeling like you belong, however; how can we support something so intangible? 

A simple but effective approach to pre-enrolment connection

Technology is opening things up here. We have read articles recommending that new students "reach out" to others who are joining their course, so that they can chat to them beforehand, but is this easy?

Emailing someone or connecting with them on social media is arguably much easier than walking up to them in person and saying "Hi, I'm Chad Hogan". Chad Hogan is probably comfortable with that, but the rest of us find it daunting. Remember being 18 years old? The thing is that digitally connecting with someone out of the blue is still somewhat daunting, as it carries the same fear of rejection and exposure that we are trying to address in the first place.

One new community, however, is getting it right. Goin' Connect is part of a new generation of pre-enrolment tools for students to...well...go and connect! It is an app and a network where students can create their own groups, see where others in your cohort or class are from and what they're into, and form connections with them.

This is not monitored by the institution, as that would be a flop right away, would it not? As the Utrecht University put it in a Facebook post introducing Goin' Connect to their students, "it really is an app by students for students, with very little involvement from us". That seems to be key to the reason it works so well. It is no surprise, then, that they have been shortlisted as finalists in the prestigious PIEoneer Awards for the Students Support Award category.

Think about it. You get the chance to ask questions to others without it feeling stilted or staged. You can find out that others in your prospective class are from your country, or even your town! Maybe you want to get away from anyone that lives in your town, but at least this can help you avoid them. The essential thing is that this simple networking approach takes away the unknown, and that is where the fear always resides.

Onboarding, conversion, retention; yes all of that is boosted for the institution with giving students pre-start access to each other in a student-controlled environment, but the main thing is that that sense of belonging does not have to wait. It can be built before you even get there, and that makes all the difference. One Polish student said that Goin' Connect gave her the chance to connect with others before moving to study in Sweden, so that the experience felt more "real" and that she feels more relaxed about going.

We cannot solve every issue that prevents students from walking or logging into that first class, or which keeps them on track after their initial semester. We can, however, make our ways of addressing these a bit more human. Social anxieties must have social solutions, and what could be simpler or more effective than making friends with those we about to share the next part of our journey with.

At NEO Academy, we believe that the student journey is not a funnel, but a circle, and we have outlined our reasons for this here. This means that we do not take a narrow view of when our responsibilities begin and end in marketing, recruitment and admissions. Community building before they arrive on campus is an important step forward in supporting students, and everyone will benefit from this; no doubt about it. If you work in this sector and have insights opinions or ideas on how we can better serve students throughout their journey, we want to hear from you.

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