Extract of “The real world of the university: what is higher education and what can it be?by Howard Gardner and Wendy Fischman. Reprinted with permission from The MIT Press. Copyright 2022.
With our research team, we spent five years visiting ten disparate campuses, conducting over two thousand semi-structured intensive interviews. On each campus, we interviewed about 50 incoming students and 50 graduate students, as well as a smaller number of professors, senior managers, administrators, recent graduates, parents, and recruiters. … Among all participants, nearly half (44%) rank mental health as the most important issue on campus – one of the few agreements among all participants. In other words, every constituency group in our study—freshmen, graduate students, professors, administrators, parents, administrators, recent graduates—ranks mental health as the biggest problem on the college campus. This alignment—among students at different stages, faculty and administrators who are on campus, and administrators, recent graduates, and parents who are off campus—is remarkable; indeed, he gets none of the more than three dozen other questions in our interview protocol.
Academic rigor: the most frequently cited cause
Among all students in our study, the most common explanation (52% of all student-reported causes) for why mental health is the most important issue on campus is academic rigor – the “pressure” of academics. Indeed, we also find that students describe this pressure as what “keeps them up at night”. But what exactly is the pressure? Is it learning difficult content? Or preparing for exams or writing articles? Or build a favorable transcript to get a job or get into graduate school? Or (reminiscent of school entrance exam answer options) “all of the above”?
It is perhaps unsurprising that at this point in history, when students discuss academic pressure as a cause of mental health, the most common explanation focuses on obtaining external measures of pass – achieving a high grade point average or “doing well” on an assignment or exam (51%). For example, a first-year communications student explained, “I know a lot of kids who…are super stressed about grades and they get really anxious about it…like intense people say, ‘You have to have a good GPA, you have to have A and all. And so, like people are really stressed about it.” A graduate student applying for graduate programs describes the need to perform well: “I think you just want to get a good grade in the class because it’s a step towards your degree, n It’s a step forward to be [on] the honor roll… Will I graduate? Will I graduate with honors? And like, you know, am I going to get into a good graduate school?”
Interestingly and importantly, these concerns about external markers of achievement are the most common descriptors of academic rigor on every campus – from most selective to least selective. For example, of the three schools with the most students commenting on external measures of success, two schools are high selectivity campuses in our sample (67% and 60%), and the other school is one of the campuses with low selectivity in our sample (63%). On the other hand, among the three schools with the fewest students who comment on external measures of success, two schools are medium selectivity campuses (45% and 40%) and the other school is one of the high selectivity of our sample. (45%). In other words, student stress over academic rigor permeates every campus, no matter how selectivity. Therefore, we cannot – and should not – assume that students at the most selective institutions feel more pressure than students at other schools – or that faculty at these selective institutions feel more pressure than faculty. from other schools. Students in all schools report being stressed about “doing well”.
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