A 2009 study conducted by USC Health Promotion and Prevention Services found striking differences between health-related issues that undergraduate and graduate students identified as threatening to academic success, and HPPS is now preparing to see if that trend has remained constant over the last two years.
The report, compiled every two years by the USC American College Health Association as part of their National College Health Assessment, surveys students on a number of health and safety issues, including stress, sexual behavior and alcohol usage.
One category in the report is “health, wellness, and academic success,” which examines the various health-related problems that can impede academic performance. The report compares the frequency of these problems in undergraduate and graduate students at USC, as well as their perceived threat to academic success.
Anxiety, sleep difficulties, cold, flu or sore throat, stress and Internet use and computer games were deemed high-risk threats to academic success for undergraduates because of the large number of students who experienced these problems, and the fact that a high percentage of students indicated these issues impacted their academic performance.
For graduate students, on the other hand, no such issues were deemed high-risk for academics, though Internet use and computer games, anxiety and stress were among the top issues that appeared to be affecting graduates.
“What the [results] say to me is that either one of two things has happened by the time you get into grad school,” said HPPS director Paula Swinford. “One is you’ve learned to manage some situations better, or you didn’t get into grad school.”
Though graduate students did report fewer of these problems impeding academic success, Swinford still wants to make sure HPPS addresses the well-being of this student population. Swinford sees them as more isolated than undergraduates, who HPPS can reach out to more globally through university housing. With graduate students, HPPS has tried to work more with the specific schools.
“Even though there is nothing in the high-frequency, high-threat category, it’s concerning to me because a grad student who is having trouble with the Internet or is anxious or is having stress difficulties, in some ways there aren’t many eyes there to help them manage that or notice that,” Swinford said.
Swinford said the results were somewhat expected, but fourth-year graduate student Genevieve Carpio said she was surprised by them.
“On the one hand, I’m not surprised computer games and social networking are large distractions for undergraduates,” said Carpio, who is studying American studies and ethnicity. “On the other hand, I don’t think that anxiety, sleep difficulties, colds, stress or the Internet become any less of a distraction when someone graduates from college and enters a doctoral or masters program.”
Carpio suspects one reason for these results is that graduate students might rank non-health related issues, such as getting research funding, as more important barriers to academic success.
Sarah Patellos, a sophomore majoring in communication, agrees that undergraduate students face a different set of problems than graduate students.
“When adjusting to college, you deal with different stresses like living on your own and taking care of yourself, so all the stress of life in general has a bigger toll,” Patellos said. “Whereas in grad school, that’s what you signed up for and you have already had four years in college to work through those issues.”
An underlying note to all the results, Swinford said, is the difference between the adolescent and 20-something brain. According to an article published by the Community Prevention Institute, the brain is still maturing into the early 20s, putting adolescents at an elevated risk for many of the problems addressed in the HPPS report, especially substance use.
The study of student health at USC will be replicated again this spring.