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College students' stress under current economic downturn.

College students are constantly influenced by multiple stressors from different aspects of their lives and the society. Life and academic stress often generate difficulties and impact college students' mental health. College students have been stressed by intensive demands of developmental and academic tasks. With current economic contraction, many additional economic stressors could be added onto college students' existing stress levels. This study investigated the perceived economic stress among college students and focused on the differential impacts perceived by both genders and four grade levels. We surveyed 560 undergraduate students to assess their perceived economic stress, especially on employment conditions, economic outlook, and financial burden. Our results reveal statistically significant differences of perceived economic stress among students of grade levels but not between genders. Our research indicates that both male and female college students perceive an equivalent magnitude of economic stress and senior college students perceive highest economic stress.


Stress has been a constant factor existing in our daily functioning (Holmes & Rahe, 1967; Viner, 1999). Downbeat life events, upbeat life changes, and excessive life demands are stressors that directly or indirectly associate with dysfunctional psychological and physiological symptoms (Holmes & Rahe, 1967; Joseph, Mynard, & Mayall, 2000). Literature has reported a correlation between stress and physical illness, such as cardiovascular disorders (Theorell, 1974) and cancer (Jacobs & Charles, 1980). Different types of psychological dysfunction, such as depression (Benjaminsen, 1981), posttraumatic stress disorder (McPherson-Sexton, 2006), and substance abuse (Lindenberg, Gendrop, & Reiskin, 1993) are deemed to have roots in stress.

College students need to cope with stress from different aspects of their lives (Mangold, Veraza, Kinkier, & Kinney, 2007). Adjusting to college life, fulfilling developmental tasks, and dealing with unexpected societal events have raised students' stress levels and contributed to the development of college students' physiological problems (Serlachius, Hamer, & Wardle, 2007) and psychological difficulties (Bell & D'Zurilla, 2009).

Academic stress is known as an essential stressor of college life (Deroma, Leach, & Leverett, 2009; Ross, Niebling, & Heckert, 1999). Transition from high school to college and from youths to independent adults (Serlachius, Hamer, & Wardle, 2007), and life stress deliver perceived stress with various degrees of intensity and magnitudes (Lunney, 2006; Sowa, 1992).

Current economic downturn is around for the past couple of years (Catalano, 2009). The adverse impacts of economic downturn on mental health have become a social issue rather than an isolated or personal condition (Jahoda, 1988). Reports continue to reveal adverse impacts of economic stress that describe the increasing perceived stress (Cokes & Kornblum, 2010) and the potential pathological reactions to economic-induced stress (Fujita & Rao, 2009; Paton, 2008 & 2010; Sifin, 2009). Literature has supported the relationships between economic-induced stress and mental or physical health (Catalano, 1991; Catalano & Dooley, 1983).

Unstable economic condition and unemployment have contributed to behavioral difficulties (Catalano & Dooley, 1981; Catalano, Snowden, Shumway, & Kessell, 2007; Dooley, Brook, & Catalano, 1987), less development of self-esteem (Dooley & Prause, 1995), substance abuse (Dragun, Russo, & Rumboldt, 2006), increasing needs of psychiatric care (Catalano & Hartig, 2004), and suicidal behavior (Platt & Hawton, 2000).

Even though they are shielded by the college campuses, college students are inevitably exposed to the distressful economic phenomena. Giving their existing academic and life stress, college students now have to spend energy to cope with the economic stress. Researchers in this study investigated how current economic stress influences college students' perceived stress levels and the different effects between genders and among different grade levels. We hypothesized that there is no statistically significant difference between genders and a higher grade level will perceive higher level of economic stress. A survey is used to collect college students' self-reported stress levels regarding the current economic downtum.



There were 560 undergraduate students who voluntarily participated in this study and completed a stress questionnaire. These participants were students from various colleges of professional studies and disciplines in a Hispanic-dominant public university, which is located in the southwestern United States. The age range of all 560 students is from 17 to 57 (M=20.24, SD= 4.39). There were 243 male (43.4%) and 317 female (56.6%) students. The ethnicities of participants were Hispanic (457=81.6%), Caucasian (36=7.2%), African American (15=2.6%), Asian (6=1.1%), and others (56=10%). There were 257 freshmen (45.9%), 156 sophomores (27.9%), 102 juniors (18.2%), and 45 seniors (8%).


College students' perceived stress was measured by a five-point Likert type rating scale, with 5 being the highest stress level and 1 the lowest. Four economicstress items were selected to represent current economic stressors. The four items are:

1. Current Employment Opportunities & Condition

2. Future Employment Opportunities

3. National/Global Financial Outlook & Economic Development

4. Current Financial Burden

These items reflected stressful economic phenomena that deliver stressful influences to college students. A combination of all four ratings predicted the overall perceived economic stress.

Validity and Reliability

Content validity was addressed via the development of this questionnaire, which was developed by researchers through an extensive literature review on economic stress. Items were designed to target the economic stressors, with which college students are likely to encounter. To ensure items assess what they were designed for, these items were reviewed by three other professionals to verify the associations of items with current economic downturn.

The reliability estimate of the questionnaire was examined before data analysis procedures. Internal Consistency was the approach chosen to examine the reliability estimate for the four items used in this study. Cronbach's Alpha was used to indicate the reliability estimate of which the four survey items had assessed the same construct. The test result showed that the Cronbach's Alpha was .746 and had exceeded the acceptable value of .70 suggested by Nunnaly (1978). This test result ensured the confidence to continue the data analysis procedures.


Students were introduced about this study in classes. Students who agreed to participate in this study signed a consent form before completing the survey questionnaire. Completed questionnaires were then collected for data entry and analysis.

Data Analysis

Factorial Analysis of Variance is effective when a study focusing on investigating main effects of at least two independent variables and interaction effects between independent variables (Meyers, Gamst, & Guarino, 2006). A composite stress score of the four economic-stress items was calculated for each participant and became the dependent variable of this study. The Factorial Analysis of Variance was used to compare the mean difference of perceived stress on students' genders (two levels, male and female) and their enrollment status (4 levels, freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior). The statistical power was set at the Alpha value less than .05 for our analytical procedures.


The data collected in this research include the dependent variable of perceived economic stress levels and two independent variables, students' gender and their grade level. A descriptive report of the perceived stress on the four economic-stress items reflects college students' heightened stress levels towards economic downturn. A mean of 2.69 in a 5-point Likert scale describes college students' perceived stress on "Current Employment Opportunities & Condition," a mean of 2.76 on "National/Global Financial Outlook & Economic Development," a mean of 3.14 is reported on "Current Financial Burden," and a mean of 3.28 on "Future Employment Opportunities."

The perceived economic stress was calculated to become a composite stress score by adding the scores of four economicstress items (please refer to Measures section). The means of perceived stress and corresponding standard deviations (SD) are listed in Table 1 according to gender and grade level:

The results of the 2 x 4 Factorial Analysis of Variance yield significant differences of perceived economic stress among academic grades but fail to report a significant difference of perceived economic stress between genders. Table 2 indicates results of the Factorial Analysis of Variance.

Leveve's test was conducted to assess homogeneity of the data set. A non-significant Levene's test, F(7,552) = .930, p=.483, was followed by a 2 x 4 Factorial Analysis of Variance procedure to investigate the gender effect, grade level effect, and the interaction effect of these variables. A non-significant gender effect, F (1,552) = .205, p = .651, is derived from Factorial Analysis of Variance. There is a significant grade level effect, F (3,552) = 6.219, p < .001, partial 2 = .033 with an observed power = .964. No significant interaction effect, F (3.552) = .944, p = .419, is reported.

Since a significant grade level effect was obtained via data analysis, Least Significant Difference (LSD) Post Hoc procedure was selected for pair-wise comparisons of means among the four grade levels. Results from LSD procedure indicate significant differences between freshman and sophomore (p = .038), freshman and senior (p = .001), sophomore and junior (p = .020), sophomore and senior (p < .001), junior and senior (p = .012). The mean score differences between grade level groups are as follow: Freshman group reports a .74 higher average economic stress than sophomore, .30 less than junior group, and 1.88 less than the senior group. Sophomore group exhibits less economic stress (1.05) than the junior group, and 2.63 less than the senior group. The junior group has less economic stress (1.58) than the senior group.


Economic condition has been associated with mental health (Dooley & Catalano, 1980). Economic contraction (Catalano & Dooley, 1983) brings adverse impacts on individuals' mental health through stress-induced economic phenomena, such as a harsh job market, unemployment, and uncertainty of future development.

From the descriptive analysis of the four economic-stress items, college students revealed increasing stress levels toward future employment opportunities rather than current employment opportunities (3.28>2.69). It is understandable that current employment opportunities might not be an immediate stressor for students who are not graduating soon; thus, students perceived higher stress levels on future employment opportunities. The foreseeable turmoil of the future job market certainly raises stress in college students.

College students reported lower stress levels on national and global economic outlook but higher stress levels on their current financial burden (3.14>2.76). Although the economic contraction in the national and global levels spreads stressful influences to the general public, its impacts on college students could be minimized by the shield of college campus. On the contrary, students' financial burden appears to have the personalized attribution and urgency. Personal financial burden has the immediacy that definitely brings on intensified stress.

Dooley, Rook, and Catalano (1987) reported gender differences of perceived adverse effects on "desired job events" and "undesired job events" but no significant difference between genders on economic events. Our findings on college students' perceived economic stress levels concur with the findings of the non-significant gender effect by Dooley, Rook, and Catalano (1987). Our results show that male and female college students perceive no significant difference of economic stress (p=.651). The economic stress is intensified and equally distributed to both male and female college students.

Vocational and career paths carry economic influences that impact individuals on the personal and emotional levels. Higher stress is found in adolescents who have difficulties determining their future vocational path (Cortada de Kohan, 2004), and unemployment has been associated with adverse mental health (Catalano, Aldrete, Vega, Kolody, & Aguilar-Gaxiola, 2000). Unlike adults already in the job market, college students prepare themselves for future labor forces once they graduate and enter the job market. It is important to understand how college students would be impacted by the employment conditions under this economic contraction.

We hypothesized that senior college students would perceive higher economic stress due to the approaching graduation time. Students in lower grade levels, from junior to freshman, would perceive lower economic stress than the senior students would. Our results indicate that senior college students reported higher economic stress than students of other grade levels did. This finding supports our research hypotheses that the closeness to graduation produces a stressor for entering job market. We find the perceived economic stress increases according to the grade levels (Senior > Junior > Sophomore). The only exception is that freshmen reported higher economic stress than sophomores did. A possible explanation is that freshmen perceive a higher economic stress partially due to the transition from high school to college, while sophomores may have adjusted to college life and are less sensitive to economic and financial stability.


Economic contraction brings on different stressful economic phenomena and ensures the increase of perceived stress. Economic stress extends its influences to the general public and breaches the shield of college campus. College students are not immune from the adverse influences of economic contraction. Economic stress has shadowed the already stressful college life and it adds on economic-induced stressors that require college students to use more coping energy. College students certainly need additional attention and assistance from supportive resources during this economic contraction.

Our study reveals the increase of perceived economic stress among college students. Senior college students face approaching graduation date and soon entry to job market. They are deeply influenced by the economic stress. With an uncertain future of national and global economic condition, college students will continue to live under economic stress. Educational systems and community resources must not overlook the impacts of economic stress and should devote resources and efforts to assist college students' stress coping.

Our study finds college students perceive immediate stressors (Future Employment Opportunities and Current Financial Burden) as high stress triggers. Students perceive the less relevant stressors (Current Employment Opportunities and National/Global Economic Development) as less stressful. Further research is needed on how students prioritize the relevance of economic stressors and the threat estimation of different economic stressors.


The large percentage of Hispanic participants in this research could limit the generalizability of these research findings, and the use of self-report survey could limit the replication of this study due to sampling procedures (Erford, 2008). The "Nonresponse bias" (Erford, 2008, p. 143) indicates the results do not reflect the viewpoints of those who decided not to participate in this study. We urge readers to consider potential limitations of this study while interpreting or implementing our research results.


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Department of Educational Psychology & Special Services

The University of Texas at El Paso


Department of Speech-Language Pathology

The University of Texas at El Paso.
Table 1
Mean Scores of Perceived Economic Stress as a Function of Gender
and Grade Levels

                  Grade Levels

            Freshman       Sophomore
             (n=257)        (n=156)

         Mean    SD      Mean    SD

Male     11.37   3.642   11.23   3.426
Female   12.19   3.457   11.05   3.669

         Junior (n=102)   Senior (n=45)

Gender   Mean    SD      Mean    SD

Male     12.31   3.252   13.53   4.155
Female   11.97   3.293   13.89   3.531

Table 2
Results from Factorial Analysis of Variance for Stress vs. Gender
and Grade Level

Variables                  SS       df      MS        F

Gender                      2.537     1    2.537    .205
Grade Levels              230.623     3   76.857   6.219 **
Gender * Grade Levels      35.015     3     .944    .944
Error                    6822.856   552   12.36
Total                   86046.000   559

* p <.05. ** p <.01
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Article Details
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Author:Guo, Yuh-Jen; Wang, Shu-Ching; Johnson, Veronica; Diaz, Marcela
Publication:College Student Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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