The Irony of College Education
By Josh Solarz
Image Credit: Pexels
Being a first year undergraduate student, amongst 8,000 others, I have begun to ponder why students these days choose to go to college. For many, and for where I'm from, it's sort of expected — after high school, you go to college, get a degree, and live happily ever after with the job of your dreams. In the middle of all this, college is where we are supposed to find ourselves — who we really are, what motivates us, and what we love, as we prepare to contribute to our respective fields. Character development and career development, as universities propose, go hand-in-hand throughout one's time in college and constitute the purpose of higher education. However, today's elite universities are creating intellectual environments where all that seems to matter is the perception of success, initiating competition among students to get the best grades. Academic competition causes students a tremendous amount of stress and can even push them to pursue certain majors and activities to be portrayed as successful, well-rounded students. For these reasons, elite colleges and universities in the United States vandalize the very purpose of higher education by fostering a culture of academic competition that produces stressed, dubiously-motivated students.
Elite universities create competition among students even before acceptance into college. In their admissions processes, universities place great emphasis on the so-called well-roundedness of students. As a result, students applying for college build their application with an effort to stack in as many extracurricular activities as possible, believing "it is the volume of activities that provides a boost in the application process and that students need to shine in multiple domains to garner attention of an admission committee" (Redding 34). Prospective college students believe if they have more activities listed than other students, they have a better chance of getting in. However, this idea of "building a resume" for college admissions along with pressure from parents and high schools to get into college "is producing the most anxious, stressed, sleep-deprived generation ever" (Redding 34). Consequently, prospective college students face continuous worries of building a poor application, fearing they won't be accepted into their top choice. This trend of "resume building" doesn't allow teens to "fully explore who they are and who they might become," which is an "impediment to important aspects of adolescent identity development" (Redding 34). While focusing on activities that will give them the best opportunity for college acceptances, teens miss out on exploring who they really are. Overall, this trend displays how "extrinsic motivation is often at the root of hyper-scheduled teens competing for admission to elite colleges," initiating an incredible amount of stress and anxiety for college applicants (Redding 35).
Elite universities provide a unique environment where thousands of very talented students learn together. Many students come from high schools where they were the top dog with no one being a better student than them. The transition from being a big fish in a little pond to a little fish in a big pond comes as a shock to most students. All of a sudden, they get surrounded by others who seem to be much smarter than them. Dr. Silvia Salchegger, an Austrian researcher of Education Standards and International Assessments, studied The Big-Fish-Little-Pond effect in 2015, and found that "equally able students of high-ability schools have on average lower academic self-concepts than those of low-ability schools" (Salchegger 405). As a result of being surrounded by more intelligent people, students' self-efficacy is dramatically reduced, creating stress and anxiety to perform well. Consequently, "high-achievers tend to perceive themselves as less competent than they actually are when placed in high-ability schools" (Salchegger 405). The environment created by elite universities makes perfectly capable students believe they aren't as smart as they thought they were, an effect so powerful that it shapes students' educational and occupational careers. In fact, the Big-Fish-Little-Pond effect causes high-achievers to pursue careers below their true potential "simply because of the stressors faced from being surrounded by thousands of extremely smart peers at elite universities" (Salchegger 405). This environment generates anxiety in students who believe they aren't cut out to compete at such a high level and therefore opt for less-demanding majors and therefore less-demanding career paths.
Unfortunately, many students maintain the idea of "resume building" as they transition into college. In fact, even students enrolled in elite institutions have the fear of not doing enough in their time at college. Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Villanova University, Mark Shiffman, analyzes this idea in his article, "Majoring in Fear." As the title implies, most students no longer explore their passions, but instead strive foremost to establish a foundation for future economic success. Students "afflicted with a desperate compulsion for competitive advantage," Shiffman states, "rack up majors, minors, certificates, credentials, and internships to keep them in the running for what they feel to be an even more elusive success" (Shiffman 19). They also "clothe themselves in an armor of achievement that they hope will protect them against uncertainties like the job market, their status, identity, and self-worth" (Shiffman 19). College students seem to be mirroring the idea of "resume building" seen in high school students trying to gain admission into these very institutions. As a result, college students continue this desire to outperform their peers and expand their credentials because they believe it will bring them success in their post-college life. With so much time devoted to resume building, students miss out on the very purpose of elite universities —for students to explore who they really are and what they have interest in studying.
This pattern of students choosing not to study what they have passion for becomes more popular in modern elite universities every year. Students often attempt to convince themselves to pursue an intended course of study, when in reality their subconscious decision-making process turns principally on a given major's economic upside. In the 2013-2014 academic year, the National Center for Education Statistics measured the number of Bachelor's degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions across various disciplines and found that there was a total of "92,162 Bachelor's degrees in engineering" but only "9,642 Bachelor's degrees in theology" (National Center for Education Statistics). These findings are unsurprising, given that, within elite university culture, engineering majors tend to have higher median salaries after college compared to theology majors. Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce found that the "median earnings for mechanical engineers is $80,000," while the "median earnings for those with a degree in theology and religious vocations is $38,000" (Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce). It is this knowledge that haunts students and drives them to turn away from degrees known to yield lower median salaries. However, one could argue that undergraduates who choose to major in engineering do in fact hold a passion for engineering and therefore pursue it in college. Despite this, Charles Malgwi, Senior Lecturer of Accountancy at Bentley University, performed a study in which he interviewed undergraduates about factors influencing their major choices, demonstrating just the opposite of intellectual passion. On a 5-point scale ranging from 5 (major influence) to 1 (no influence), students gave "potential job opportunities a 3.88" and "level of pay in the field a 3.74" (Malgwi 278). Evidently, some students no longer maintain a desire to pursue their intellectual passions, but a desire to put themselves in the best position to be financially successful in the future. As a result, students move through college in accordance with a "financial success" blueprint and leave with a degree that provides no spiritual stimulation.
When students pursue a major they don't have passion for, there is little-to-no opportunity to explore who they really are. Today, education seems to only be an investment in future financial stability and no longer a time for self-actualization. William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep examines what getting an education truly means in today's world and analyzes elite universities' roles in providing that education. Many universities claim they fulfill the ultimate purpose of college, "to enable you to live more alertly, more responsibly, more freely, and more fully," or simply put, "to build a self" (Deresiewicz 82). Elite universities say that "they teach their students how to think," but put most of their efforts into training them "in the analytical and rhetorical skills necessary for success in business and the professions" (Deresiewicz 63). It is here Deresiewicz uncovers the evolution of modern elite universities, moving away from the idea of allowing students "to build a self" towards a strict focus on preparing for one's future career. Essentially, undergraduates are "not learning how to use their minds," but learning "how to be students" (Deresiewicz 13). Consequently, students feed on extrinsic motivation and "lose themselves in the pack," "following well-worn paths" known to ensure so-called success after college, leaving them without a sense of who they truly are (Deresiewicz 21).
The competitive environment created by elite universities leaves students desperate to outcompete their peers and maintain a high grade point average, especially for those dreaming of admission to medical school, law school, or graduate school. Grade point average constitutes a substantial factor in what admissions officers base their decision on, so students put forth tremendous time and effort towards keeping their GPA at a maximum. When grades, not learning, seem to be students' biggest motivator, "the end product is not necessarily good scholarship, but more often a sharpening of academic predatory skills" (Eitzen 185). The very purpose of higher education, to enhance one's holistic self, gets drowned out by a desire for the best grades. Simply put, "when winning is the only thing, the joy in participation is lost" (Eitzen 186). The joy of learning fades in the midst of the competitive environment of elite institutions accompanied by competitive reward structures. With a competitive reward structure, it's hard for students to not compare themselves and their grades with others. The capability of students to compare their success with others even more so contributes to the academic pressure observed at elite universities, motivating students to put more time and effort into studying to get better grades. Because students spend so much time studying competitively, it is challenging to develop deep, meaningful relationships with others, a benefit college environments typically provide.
The vast amount of material college students need to know and how colleges test the material also causes the development of stress, anxiety, and depression among college students. Students find themselves struggling to balance their overwhelming academic and social schedule while trying to get enough sleep. To analyze the effects of enduring a medical school workload, Firdous Jahan—general practitioner of diabetology at the Oman Medical College—studied students at her medical college and questioned them about their perception of stress, anxiety, depression, and coping strategies. Jahan found that an "overwhelming burden of information and lots of competition to excel makes students anxious and nervous with minimal opportunity to relax and recreate" (Jahan 17). Not only for medical school, but Jahan's work also translates to elite undergraduates pursuing pre-medical and engineering degrees based on a similar workload and restricted time schedule. With so much information to learn, students dive into their books and forget about the importance of relaxing and taking breaks from studying, both being coping mechanisms to combat stress. Professors at elite universities commonly implement only a few exams during the semester, creating even more pressure for students to do well on exams. When these exams comprise of multiple-choice questions, students test solely on their ability to recall details. High-stakes exams, combined with the fear of doing poorly, lead students to believe they need to devote more time to memorizing every little detail of the material. Memorizing details, however, tends to be a poor method of retention, causing information to exit the brain as soon as the test is over. If one doesn't retain what they learn as they progress through life, then what is the purpose of college? But today's undergraduate students, of course, will do anything to get the grade.
Some students even to revert to extreme measures to succeed in the classroom. For example, Johnny, struggling in biology, sees everyone else performed much better than him on the previous exam, leading him to believe he must not be as smart as his peers, and the only way for him to do well now is to cheat. As a result, cheaters like Johnny "succeed in guarding themselves against being in a situation that can potentially overwhelm, stress, confuse, frustrate, and embarrass them" (Nora 575). In other words, if students believe that cheating will allow them to get a better grade than actually studying, and trying to study only increases their stress and anxiety, then they may choose to cheat. In fact, cheating is not particularly challenging for students at elite universities because of how professors evaluate students. As stated earlier, typical exams consist of being able to recall information in a multiple-choice style, contributing to the idea that students study material by memorization, not by actually learning it. It seems as if elite universities "value merely the results," "but not the learning process." Those who cheat justify their motives by saying, "I don't care how I achieve the desired result even if I cheat. To me, only the outcome itself matters" (Nora 578). Consequently, the very purpose of elite universities — for students to actually learn — becomes irrelevant.
Along with cheating, students at elite universities cope with stress and academic competition through illicit use of prescription stimulants. Elite universities put so much pressure on students to perform well in classes that students are willing to use anything to outcompete their peers. As a result, students turn to prescription stimulants to increase alertness, attention, and energy. Christian Teter, an associate professor of Psychopharmacology at the University of New England, surveyed 4,580 college students in 2006 on their use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement. Teter found that "the most commonly reported motives for illicit use [of prescription stimulants] were to help with concentration (65.2%), help study (59.8%), and increase alertness (47.5%)" (Teter 1). If students find evidence that substances like Adderall or Ritalin have the ability to enhance test-taking, students will take advantage of prescription stimulants to get an edge against other classmates. Therefore, elite universities unintentionally promote the use of prescription stimulants because they reduce stress and give an advantage to students while being tested. Students with no medical requirements gain access to and abuse these prescription stimulants, relying on an illegal practice to gain an edge in studying and test-taking.
Stress and anxiety can be potentially extreme within elite college environments, leaving students feeling hopeless with a desire to end the emotional strain. Suicide among college students leaves a horrifying thought, yet is a true reality seen throughout modern elite universities in the United States. In 2009, Amelia Arria, Associate Professor of Behavioral and Community Health at the University of Maryland, interviewed 1,249 first-year college students about suicide ideation. Of the 1,249 students, "75 individuals endorsed current thoughts about suicide, and 55 met criteria for high depressive symptoms" (Arria 6). This depressive problem seen throughout elite college environments likely stems from comparing our achievements to other students. In fact, per Leon Festinger's social comparison theory, it is human nature to "try to determine our worth based on how we stack up against others" (Scelfo 4). When modern students fail, they no longer see it as an opportunity to learn from their mistakes, but as a crushing blow to their existence. In fact, if students used to doing everything perfectly "get a B" in college, it can "cause them to fall apart" (Scelfo 3). In 1968, MIT recognized this problem of student depression and anxiety initiated by academic competition, and so "eliminated letter grades for all freshmen" (Wang 1). Currently, first year undergraduates at MIT are graded on a pass or no record basis in the first semester, with passing meaning a C- or better. This new grading system has eased the transition from high school to college, decreased academic competition, and has allowed students to take classes they actually want to take in the process of discovering what they have a passion for. Even though a pass/fail grading system helps suppress some competition, it does not remove all of it. With tremendous amounts of pressure put on students by themselves, their peers, their parents, and their career looming in the distance, students commit to the perception of being perfect in everything they do, especially academics. When this pressure combines with failure, and everyone else on campus seems to "have it all together," some students feel they are doomed and will never be able to be as happy or successful as their peers. Students attending elite universities are meant to enjoy college education — not to pay obscene amounts of money only to pursue their own psychological demise.
I have dreamed of attending the University of Notre Dame ever since I was twelve years old. I had this beautiful idea that Notre Dame was a magical place filled with people who all cared about each other, were passionate about what they were studying, and valued learning over grades. As a result, academic competition in my dream world was nonexistent. Over the summer before my first semester here at Notre Dame, I couldn't wait to turn this dream into a reality. After a few days of classes, however, I realized that college — even at Notre Dame — is not all sunshine and rainbows. I observed first-year students diving into their textbooks to start studying for tests weeks away out of fear of beginning their college careers poorly. I've been left mid-conversation in the dining hall by friends in a hurry to get back to studying. I've heard remarks such as "I'll never get into medical school with a G.P.A. lower than 3.5." For some students, everything and anything seems to revolve around academics. Don't get me wrong, I love my school and will be forever grateful for choosing Notre Dame. I just think too many students here get caught up in their perceived importance of grades and believe what they do and how well they do in college will determine how successful they are in the future. College is supposed to be a time in our lives when we develop who we are as people and achieve self-actualization, and we cannot let academic achievement drown that out. Forgetting why we are here at Notre Dame — and getting overly caught up in the academic competition — can leave detrimental emotional and psychological consequences. Good grades are obviously important, but we should focus more on developing our holistic self – for the self, not our grades, moves on after college.