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Supporting Early College and Dual Enrollment Students’ Health and Well-Being

Adjusting to College Life and Stress

Educators, parents, and community members cannot help but notice that students' struggle for well-being, physical and mental, is more visible. For folks in education for the last decade, the upsurge of students at the K-12 level or on campus who need help dealing with health issues is stunning, with student self-reports of health issues rising each year. At the college level, reports of anxiety and depression are common across campus, and are at the root of many academic problems.

Part of the struggle that college students face is a deeply unhealthy lifestyle. On their own for the first time, often with a lot less structure than high school, college freshmen tend to sleep poorly, eat substandard food, not take care of themselves physically, and struggle with any illness that might occur. In many cases, students were helped by the structure of high school, and rejected the things that helped keep them on track in the past when they arrived at college, often with terrible results.

Early college and dual enrollment programs can actually be part of the solution to some of these issues, as the students in these programs get to try out college work while they still have the day-to-day support of their parents, and access to the resources at their high school. They get a chance to learn how to manage a college schedule, and the increased time needed for study with the help of many more adults than most college students have in a traditional freshman year.

Maintaining Mental Health

Early college/dual enrollment students are simultaneously in two highly stressful settings - high school and college. High school students are under pressure academically and socially, and are at higher risk of depression and suicide. While society tends to romanticize the college experience, the reality can be very different - many students struggle with anxiety and depression, made worse by the idea that they should be experiencing the "best years of their lives." The age groups of high school and college students are also times that are the time of onset for many mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia. (For problems among college students, see -health/statistics/.)

Students struggle with the concept of mental health as well. For many families and communities, mental illness can be a taboo issue, or not recognized as a legitimate disorder. At a workshop on college interviewing, one of our early college students told us that what she was passionate about was mental health, as people in her family with mental illness were accused of "faking" an illness. While this is at an extreme, many people in high school and college settings still treat mental illness as far different than physical illness, often downplaying the impact of mental illness on school work and life without thinking through the impact of these illnesses. The National Association of Secondary School Principals has identified mental health as a key area for their schools to address, in order to improve academic achievement and student wellbeing (NASSP 2019).

Early college programs and programs that work with high school students need to think proactively about the mental health of students, and design stigma-free ways to address the issue. One high performing school I have worked with devised a short protocol to help students calm down when they feel overwhelmed, and posted it throughout the building. Other schools have devised ways of working mindfulness into the school day or after-school curriculum, using this as a setting where students dealing with mental illness, as well as those just dealing with stress or life, can come together to address these issues. Classical High School in Providence, Rl, has a "midnight waffles" club to promote mental health through fun activities such as stand-up comedy, blowing bubbles, and re-doing the dialogue to videos.

Taking psychology classes as part of early college programming can bring a much-needed perspective for high school students. While some high schools offer AP psychology, most do not. Students in Merrimack's introduction to psychology early college class have been lively questioners and discussants in class, and several have indicated that they now intend to minor or major in the field in college. This is an example of how early colleges not only help students get ahead in their credits, but also have the potential to change their ideas, with impact both inside and outside the classroom.

On campuses, student-led efforts such as Active Minds have sought to de-stigmatize mental health issues, and to support students who might be wrestling with them (Active Minds, 2019). While these efforts encourage students to pursue therapy and help, they also focus on just helping students set goals and work towards them each day. Campuses struggle with the profusion of smartphones and social media, which both isolate students (even those living on campus) and provide a constant source of social comparison that can wear on students' sense of well-being.

Q Lead to Launch: Bryan Landgren

Bryan is a mental health advocate and has been a phone/text counselor with Samaritans, a suicide prevention organization. His advice for helping students address their mental health include:

  • • Try to understand the unique stress early college/dual enrollment students are living with.
  • • Give students more chances to try out activities and succeed, rather than assume that they can do things correctly the first time.
  • • Make it clear that it is always ok to ask for support, whether it is related to academics or to mental health.

Bryan Landgren brings significant background in mental health and wellness to his work with early college students - he has worked for Samaritans, a mental health support line, as well as doing research on the mental health needs of college students as part of his M.Ed. capstone project. He has developed workshops for early college students locally, as well as led national webinars in mental health and suicide prevention.

Landgren sees mental health and stress management as key components of early college programs. Landgren told me

for early college students, junior year is a big stressor for them. They need to grow up and mature so quickly, and this induces anxiety in their brains. The hardest part for them is not having people who understand what they are going through. They are facing tough classes in both high school and college, but neither group of teachers or staff fully understands the level of stress students are under.

Then in senior year, the added pressures of the college admission process, and the sense that reaching out for help is a weakness, can degrade student mental health as well.

Due to the fact that early college students are selected for their program, they are also expected to do everything right the first time they see it. Recently, in a Blackboard training with early college students, Landgren realized that the assumption was that having seen Blackboard once, they were fully ready to use it in class - despite the fact that traditional age college students struggle with the system on a daily basis.

For students in early college programs, this stress, and the anxiety that results, just adds up. Landgren notes that

As brain research has shown, their brains are not going to be fully developed until at least age 21 (if not 25). But students may be struggling with pressures at home, difficulty work at school, stress in the college classroom, all leading to anxiety.

Added to this, students do not always feel it is OK to ask for help, and can feel that they need to achieve perfect scores and straight As, even when this is an unrealistic goal.

Landgren feels that mental health needs to be built into early college programs from the beginning, and needs to form part of the curriculum as well. Rather than focusing early activities and orientation on academics and program logistics, Landgren believes early programming needs to include information on how students can navigate this process while maintaining mental wellness. In addition, classes such as psychology and human development in early college programs can give students information and a vocabulary to discuss how their brains work, and to encourage all students to seek help if they need it. Finally, as early college and dual enrollmentopportunities are offered to a wider range of students, this can have a positive impact on student mental health, giving them a wider range of peers to interact with, and decreasing the sense of being in a pressure cooker.

Finding Time to be More than a Student

Part of the challenge of being a student in an intrinsically stressful environment, such as an early college, is finding ways to disconnect. The long college admissions process can make students feel as though they need to achieve in every part of life, using all available moments. School is important, as are test scores (and test prep), leadership activities, community service, political involvement, and now the addition of creating your own company or organization. These can add up to feelings of being overwhelmed, and lead even the highest achieving students to feelings of despair.

Early college students need time to be adolescents, as well as high achieving students. This can involve skateboarding, playing hacky-sack, laying around and reading a book, or otherwise enjoying time with or without peers. While these activities might appear to be loafing to well-meaning parents and adults, all human beings need some time that is not committed to achieving some sort of abstract goal, but is a chance for the brain to recharge.

Community service activities, particularly those that involve getting to know the people you serve, can also help level out students' thinking. Working in a soup kitchen where you eat with the people served can help young people connect to people they might not ordinarily meet, and will also give them a sense of making a contribution to their community. Our high school partner, Abbott Lawrence Academy, has a community service requirement, and hosts a day of service each fall, where students go out and volunteer at community agencies one day each December. Activities such as Best Buddies and Special Olympics-Young Athletes, can also take students out of their own heads, and ask them to make a connection with someone whose life is quite different from their own.

Physical activity and nutrition are another key to well-being for students at any level. This might take the form of a sport, or intramurals, or just going for a run or a walk. Many early college students take on individual sports rather than team sports, to fit with their schedule. Having a regular physical activity to do, and eating relatively healthy meals, can go a long way to keeping students from "crashing." Music, vocal or instrumental, can help students unplug from the stresses of daily life. Having some form of spiritual practice or meditation, such as prayer, meditation, organized religious services, or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, helps students process and deal with the stresses that they cannot avoid.

Connecting to Community Programs

Given their funding structures, early college programs should not try to "go it alone." The American educational system, for all its problems, has an amazing array of educational and community organizations that can step up and help students. In the Lawrence High School early college program, many organizations, such as Top-Notch Scholars, SquashBusters and YDO, provide a great deal of college-readiness/access programming to students. They are organizations that work with students starting in middle school, and have built relationships of trust with students and families even before high school, that they can draw on.

Think hard about the community resources you can draw on. Local health centers can provide programming and career mentoring; local companies can host job shadowing days; non-profit and volunteer organizations often have programming or scholarship programs that can help young people. Each connection you can make on behalf of your program could really help a student or family down the line, as you will not know the full needs of your program and participants for some time.

0The Early College/Dual Enrollment

Edge: Dr. Michael Sayler

Dr. Sayler has researched and worked with early college and dual enrollment students and programs as a researcher in gifted education.

He suggests, based on research:

  • 1. Take the social and emotional status of students seriously. If they are genuinely unhappy in their program, they will drop out, even if they are academically successful.
  • 2. Make sure that students are appropriately challenged. If students are truly bored with the school curriculum, they will tune out or act out.

Dr. Michael Sayler's career has come full circle with early college and dual enrollment issues. He began his career writing a dissertation at Purdue on the experiences of students who enrolled in college full time before they turned 17, and the impact this experience had on them. He went on to work as a faculty member and as an administrator at the University of North Texas, which had a pioneering program that brought academically talented high school students to live on campus and take college classes in STEM areas. And he is currently Dean of Education at Eastern Michigan University on a campus with a lively early college program.

Sayler describes the early colleges at North Texas as unique, as students lived on campus, and were expected to pursue coursework that would lead to careers in science, engineering, or pre-health careers. At the time Sayler started his research on the program the focus was on the social-emotional well-being of the students - whether they were happy with the program, or missed their home high schools and their families. The TAMS program that Sayler researched became less diverse in many ways as time went on, as more affluent and motivated families found their way into the program, changing the mix of students.

Many students flourished in the program, with some finishing their TAMS career taking graduate level math classes at the university. However, some students did drop out of the program for academic or social-emotional reasons, and many dreaded returning to their home high school defeated - some did a GED program to avoid this shame, or attended another high school. Some students ran afoul of TAMS zero tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol (they lived together in one dorm on campus), a real temptation on a residential college campus.

As a researcher in gifted education, Sayler views early college as a real benefit for academically talented students. Without interventions such as early college, some students will become bored and disengaged in a traditional high school curriculum, and may even act out as a result. For students with this level of motivation, early college promises to truly engage these students, even when it means they may give up some of the normal social and even family life to pursue the opportunity

Resource Toolbox

Active Minds Website, Retrieved November 14, 2020.

Mayhew, M.J., Pascarella, E.T. and Terenzini, P.T. (2016). How College Affects Students. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Association of Secondary School Principals. Position Statement: Mental Health, nassp-position-statements/promoting-mental-health-in-middle-level -and-high-schools/. Retrieved November 14, 2020.

Sayler, M.F. (2015). Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science: 25 Years of Early College STEM Opportunities. Roeper Review, 37(1), 29-38. doi: 10.1080/02783193.2015.975773

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