College students are now as worried about inflation and recession as they are mass shootings

January 6, 2023, 5:14 PM UTC
Female student looking defeated sitting down on the floor holding her head in her hands
College students have more things than ever to be anxious about in 2023.
PeopleImages/Getty Images

It isn’t easy being a higher education student in America right now. Between rising tuition fees, high student debt, and higher rates of depression and loneliness in the wake of the pandemic, college students have a lot on their plate even before academics are factored in. But 2023 is coming with a raft of new challenges as students fear for not just their own personal safety—but inflation and a looming recession.

Pervasive mental health issues on college campuses have been well documented for some time, but economic uncertainty is a growing anxiety. And many U.S. college students really are growing increasingly worried about inflation and recession this year, even on the level of the dangers of mass on-campus shootings, according to a survey published Thursday by student health care provider TimelyMD. 

The survey gauged the primary stressors afflicting 1,200 college students across the country in the buildup to the spring semester, and found that students’ economic and personal safety concerns are some of the biggest drivers behind their anxiety in 2023. The survey also revealed that U.S. college students’ mental health is improving at a snail’s pace, with 78% of respondents reporting the same or higher levels of stress severity as last year.

Half of all students said concerns over their own mental health and ability to handle different challenges was the main issue contributing to stress, while worries over personal finances came in as the second biggest cause for concern, being named by 39% of respondents. Nearly two-thirds of students said they were concerned about a U.S. recession, which a survey of economists last month said has a 70% chance of happening in 2023 in the wake of multiple large Federal Reserve interest rate hikes last year.

The third-most popular concern for students was their academics, but coming in at joint fourth place among the top reasons behind young Americans’ unease heading into the new year is an unlikely pair: inflation and mass shootings, both of which were cited by 35% of survey respondents.

When it came to the purchase of day-to-day necessities, including housing, food, technology, and child or sibling care, more than half of respondents (59%) said they had encountered difficulties affording basic needs in the past year as inflation has risen. 

Overall, rising prices, finances, and mass shootings ranked as larger concerns for students than their relationships, their physical health, or COVID-19.

Rising anxiety for college students

Anxiety over on-campus safety rose last year after several high-profile instances of violence at U.S. schools—including a tragic mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in May. The year was bookended by another brutal attack in November near the University of Idaho campus in Moscow, Idaho, involving the deaths of four college students.

Inflation, meanwhile, has battered students’ personal finances for the better part of a year by sending tuition fees and the cost of living soaring. Tuition price increases held fairly steady up through the 2021–22 academic year, with average fees rising only 1.6% at four-year public institutions and 2.1% at private schools according to the College Board, in part owing to an infusion of government money during the pandemic. 

But fees started surging last year in tandem with rising inflation and a slowdown in federal relief. For the 2022–23 academic year many private and public colleges raised tuition fees by as much as 5%, with most schools citing inflation and higher operational costs as a key factor.

Inflation and the rising cost of living has pushed some students to pause their studies or even drop out of college altogether this year. Around nine in 10 graduate students reported having trouble balancing rising prices with their academic work, with 45% saying the higher cost of living could force them to drop their studies altogether, according to a November study by Nature. 

Meanwhile, nearly 20% of U.S. college students expected to graduate this year said they were unsure about returning to campus in 2023 because of tuition costs and inflation, a September survey by education website found. 

For those who do return to school, the situation is becoming increasingly dire. In the U.K., more than one in 10 students were reported to be using food banks last summer because of the cost of living crisis, a survey by the National Union of Students found.

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