Sorry my sons, but… children of academics exhibit more stress when entering the university

This is the kind of study that gets me worried as it states that if the parents have a degree, their children also believe that they have to get one. This can put them under pressure. Reading this when my oldest son is expecting news any time now about his results in the strangest school year since WWII doesn’t help. But… if you read the actual study you’ll find that the number of respondents was rather low and a.o. therefore the scientists call the study preliminary themselves.

From the press release:

Stress hormone accumulates in the hair

In stressful situations, the body releases an increased amount of the hormone cortisol, which also reaches growing hair and is stored there if the levels remain high over a lengthy period of time. By analysing the hair, researchers can identify the phases when a person had more stress.

In order to find out whether the stress levels of young people from different family backgrounds differ when they’re starting university, the research team recruited a total of 71 test persons. “The only inclusion criteria were that they started their first semester and that they had sufficiently long hair,” explains Nina Minkley from the Behavioural Biology and Didactics of Biology research group at RUB. “In the end, this meant that we recruited almost only women, and we decided not to include the few eligible men to avoid falsifying the results.”

Strands of hair and questionnaires

The participants supplied the research team with three thin strands of hair each, which were cut off near the scalp. Since a hair grows about one centimetre per month, the researchers examined the latest one and a half centimetres that had grown in the six weeks since the beginning of the semester. In addition, the participants filled out questionnaires in which they provided information about their parents’ educational background. They were also asked about the stress they subjectively perceived.

It emerged that first-year students from academic households where at least one parent had a university degree exhibit higher stress levels than those from non-academic households, even though they didn’t differ in other respects. The subjectively perceived stress levels, for example, were the same.

Stress due to impending loss of status

The research team interprets this result as an indication of female students from academic households being under greater pressure because failing their study would result in a loss of status for them and their families. This is in line with findings in sociological studies, which have shown that children of academics tend to go to university even if their academic performance isn’t expected to be successful, based on their school grades. “Children of non-academics, on the other hand, can only win and are therefore probably less stressed,” concludes Minkley.

Abstract of the study:

Previous research has extensively addressed social disparity in education using certain aspects, including the stress differences between students from nonacademic families and those from academic families during the transition from secondary school to a university. However, this issue has not yet been fully understood; the current literature suggests contradictory predictions, and physiological indicators of stress have never been assessed. Therefore, we tested whether hair cortisol concentrations (HCCs) in first semester students from nonacademic families are different from those of first semester students from academic families during their first six weeks at university. We analyzed hair samples and parental educational background reports from 71 female first semester students at a university in Switzerland in two waves (n = 34 in the autumn of 2016 and n = 37 in the autumn of 2017). The HCCs were extracted from the hair using a well-established protocol. The analyses revealed higher HCCs in the students from the academic families across the two cohorts. This difference could not be attributed to different control variables (e.g., age, migration background). These preliminary findings were in line with the sociological theory that an academic parental background is associated with pressure to avoid a drop in one’s social status.

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