Stress overload in first-generation college students: Implications for intervention

Amirkhan et al. / Psychological Services / April 2022

First-generation college students (FGCS), those whose parents never obtained a baccalaureate, are disadvantaged relative to continuing generation college students (CGCS) in regard to academic performance and health status. The literature documents myriad challenges facing FGCS, in the form of both adjustment demands and limited resources. Stress overload, the pathogenic form of stress, occurs when demands overwhelm coping resources. Its relevance to the plight of FGCS, as well as its established link to dysfunction in other college populations, prompted the present hypotheses: Stress overload (a) would be more prevalent among FGCS than CGCS and (b) could thereby explain their academic and health disparities. Public-university students (n = 593) completed an anonymous online survey assessing stress overload, somatic symptoms, and grades. Analyses of variance (ANOVAs) showed FGCS (n = 366) to report more stress overload than CGCS, even after controlling for specific confounds, as well as lower grades and marginally more symptoms. Path analyses yielded a best-fitting model that showed stress overload to mediate the association between generational status (FGCS vs. CGCS) and grade and symptom levels. In sum, stress-overload maps onto the circumstances of FGCS, provides a common denominator to their myriad challenges, and offers a mechanism to explain their academic performance and health issues. This suggests the utility of stress overload as a screening tool and as a primary focus for therapeutic intervention with FGCS. These implications, the study’s limitations, and the need for future research to probe the role of stress overload in the FGCS college experience are discussed.