The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The biggest problem on college campuses — book excerpt

(MIT Press)

In the following excerpt from their new book, authors Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner take a deep dive into their years-long research on what students view as the biggest problem on campus.

Here’s the excerpt, taken from “The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be” by Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner. Reprinted with permission from The MIT Press.

If, in 2012, you had asked us to itemize the biggest problems on the college campus, we might have cited alcohol, sexual misconduct, or possibly free speech issues. It’s unlikely that mental health would have made the short list. In fact, the prominence — indeed, dominance — of this issue constitutes one of the major surprises of our study.
But now, nearly a decade later, along with informed members of the public, we can confirm what those who spend time on campuses have known for the better part of a decade: challenges of mental health constitute one of the biggest problems on campus. It’s an issue of overriding importance.
Indeed, at the beginning of the study, we heard a lot about alcohol and safety concerns. But over and over again, mental health came up as a source of many problems for students — oftentimes more than any of the other concerns. (And toward the end of study, we began to hear as well about mental health challenges for faculty and other adults on campus.) As a result, early in our data collection, we asked participants to describe problems — any problems they perceived as issues on campus. Because we found that students repeatedly named the same problems across campuses, after posing this open-ended question, we added an immediate follow-up. We asked respondents to rank five major problems in terms of their relative severity — namely:
*Academic dishonesty (e.g., plagiarism, cheating)
*Mental health (e.g., stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders)
*Relationships with peers (friendships and romantic relationships)
*Alcohol and substance abuse
*Safety issues (e.g., violence, sexual misconduct)
In doing so, we wanted to understand how individuals thought about the relative potency and urgency of each problem.
Now, as we are writing this book, issues of mental health have been so widely reported in newspapers, journals of education, and more popular books that this finding is no longer shocking— for some, it may even seem like yesterday’s news. But the high frequency of concern across all participants, stakeholders, and schools is important — indeed, we consider it a major headline. Furthermore, the ways in which participants describe the problems are sometimes surprising (because issues of mental health are so often misunderstood); and the search for helpful interventions is pressing.
Across all participants, nearly half (44%) rank mental health as the most important problem on campus — one of the few agreements among all participants. Put another way, each constituency group in our study — first-year students, graduating students, faculty, administrators, parents, trustees, young alums — 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, as well as trustees, young alums, and parents who are off campus — is notable; indeed, it does not obtain with respect to any of the more than three dozen other questions in our interview protocol.* (In this summary, we don’t include job recruiters.)
To underscore the point: participants at all types of campuses— ranging in size, selectivity, and geography — perceive mental health as the biggest problem confronted by students. That is, across small, remote, residential campuses as well as large, urban, commuter campuses, the most selective campuses as well as the least selective campuses, the concern for mental health is consistent and regnant. Speculation that this is particularly an urban problem, or a problem at selective schools, or only a concern of residential campus, or only prevalent in certain demographic categories, is not borne out.
In addition to the ranking, without any prompting, approximately 20% of our students (that is, one out of every five students), testify and explain that they struggle with their own mental health issues. Furthermore, more than a third of all student participants (38%) discuss the prevalence of mental health on campus. This finding suggests that participants do not just rank mental health as the biggest problem because they themselves confront it; they also see it as a widespread problem for others and for the larger campus community. As an interesting and revealing contrast: though participants also describe academic dishonesty as widespread on campus, this issue was consistently ranked as the least important problem students confront....
Such widespread consensus suggests that there are few, if any, differences in how participants with various backgrounds might rank mental health. For example, we find no significant gender differences, nor do we find any significant differences in the responses of students who come from different types of high schools (public, private, or charter schools). However, we note an increased awareness about mental health issues over the course of the college experience: whereas first-year students (35%) see mental health as the biggest problem on campus, this percentage significantly increases among graduating students (50%). Implication: whether students are thinking about their own personal issues or not, as they spend more time in college, they develop increasing alertness to and/or concerns about the issue of mental health for their respective campus communities and, presumably, the well-being of their peers.
These overall data are revealing. Unlike the national polls and individual school surveys on which much current understanding is based, we do not ask participants to respond directly to questions about their own mental health. Rather, we seek to understand “why” participants think that mental health is the biggest problem on campus. To be clear, our intention is not to diagnose particular ailments, nor to collect statistics about the prevalence of specific conditions, such as depression or suicidal tendencies. Some individuals volunteered information about their own mental health issues, but these respondents might have shared even more if we had posed the question directly. Instead, our data are illuminating because we ask participants for their own reasoning about mental health issues — regardless of whether the rationales arise from their own experiences and/or their observations of others.
Whenever we present these findings, we are asked why now? Why is it that individuals seem to be reporting more concern about their own mental health, and the mental health of others, than ever before? We are predictably queried whether the problems have worsened over time, and/or whether students are finally openly admitting to problems that have always existed, perhaps beneath the surface. And we have also been asked whether reported differences could be due to different mortality rates for children across the decades, to larger and increasingly diverse demographies on campus, to greater pressures in high school, to child rearing that spoils children, to greater dependence on therapy and drugs in the precollege years — and, more recently (after our study was completed), to anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic. No doubt readers of this book could readily come up with other hypotheses and speculations.
But at this point, no firm answers exist — and indeed the question may be impossible to answer, because of so-called cohort effects. That is, we can’t assume that students in 1950 are the same as students in 1985, or in 2020, and so such comparisons are necessarily speculative — if not odious. But, having listened carefully to several hundred respondents talk about their rationales, and then having sought to ascertain patterns across schools and constituencies, we can make educated inferences about what has become so challenging for young people in college. And herein lies one value of our approach.
Indeed, our data suggest a quite distinct perspective on the prevalence of mental health issues on the college campus. While some hypothesize that students are “overly coddled,” or that social media have caused students to feel more loneliness and social anxiety, the majority of students in our study describe an overwhelming pressure to do well, as opposed to just “do okay” — indeed, to build a perfect resume — as the primary source of mental health distress.
Academic Rigor: The Most Commonly Cited Cause
Across all students in our study, the most common explanation (52% of all student-reported causes) about why mental health is the most important problem 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” (see box 6.1). But what exactly is the pressure? Is it about learning difficult content? Or preparing for exams or writing papers? Or building a favorable transcript to get a job or get into graduate school? Or (reminiscent of response options on school admissions exams) “all of the above?”
Perhaps not surprisingly at this moment in history, when students discuss academic pressure as a cause of mental health, the most frequent explanation focuses on achieving external measures of success — securing a high grade-point average, or “doing well” on an assignment or an exam (51%). For example, a first-year student majoring in communications explains: “I know a lot of kids who … get super stressed out over grades and they get really anxious about it … like intense people make like, ‘You have to have a good GPA, you have to have As and stuff.’ And so, like people get really stressed out over that.” A graduating student in the midst of applying to graduate programs describes needing to perform: “I think, you just want to have a good grade in the class because it’s one step forward to your degree, right? It’s one step forward to being [on] the honor roll … Am I gonna graduate? Am I gonna graduate with honors? And like, you know, like, will I get into a good graduate school?”
Interestingly and importantly, these concerns with the external markers of success are the most common descriptors for academic rigor at every campus — from most to least selective. For example, of the three schools with the most students who comment 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 low-selectivity campuses in our sample (63%). On the other hand, of the three schools with the fewest students who comment about external measures of success, two schools are medium-selectivity campuses (45% and 40%) and the other school is one of the high-selectivity campuses in our sample (45%). In other words, student stress with respect to academic rigor pervades every campus, regardless of its selectivity. Therefore, we can’t — and shouldn’t — presume that students at the most selective institutions feel more pressure than do students at other schools — nor that the faculty at these selective institutions apply more pressure than faculty at other schools. Students at all schools report stress with respect to “doing well.”
The same pattern holds true for most of the other major categories of academic rigor which students describe. For example, among students who talk about academic rigor, the second most frequent category is managing academic workload (21%) — both in terms of managing the work across an entire course load and just in an individual course. One student, aspiring to become an elementary school teacher, comments “I started having a little bit of anxiety from … the amount of workload that I had, and I felt like, everything was just, like, bundling up, so I would say that is the biggest issue.” A second student, majoring in natural science, says: “You know, sometimes school can be overwhelming. I feel like I am drowning. I don’t know if that is in the ‘anxiety department’ but it’s like, sometimes it becomes very stressful."
Again, and notably, the school with the most students who comment on workload (33%) is one of the high-selectivity schools in our sample, whereas the school with the second most students who comment (32%) is one of the low-selectivity schools in our study. Moreover, of the two schools with students who comment the least about workload, one is a medium-selectivity school (4%), and the other is one of the low-selectivity schools in our sample (15%). Clearly, we can’t simply assume that the students with the most problems managing workload are the commuting students who often need to balance academic workload with off-campus responsibilities — such as taking care of families or juggling jobs while trying to find some free hours for study. Though these demands or constraints might be challenging for some students most of the time, or for many students some of the time, it is not necessarily what these students see or cite as the primary or most frequent cause of mental health issues.
In light of a third category of student comments about academic rigor, we are again motivated to check our assumptions. We refer here to compensating for, or overcoming, lack of preparation — not feeling ready for college-level work, or experiencing general difficulty with academics. A first-year student double majoring in biology and Spanish says: “I feel like a lot of people, when they come to [school], they don’t understand how demanding the academics are and get stressed out pretty easily.” Another student specifically describes readiness issues related to the transition to college: “Stress, because [first-year students who] are not fully transitioned, start stressing out … they start getting anxiety because, you know, they’re too scared to ask for help from anyone.”
Yet another surprise: One might predict that students who complain (or blame) lack of preparation for academic work may not have experienced high-quality secondary education — and that they are thus more likely to attend a college that is less selective. (Presumably it would be more difficult — though it’s clearly possible — to gain admission to a moderately selective or highly selective college without a good high school education.) But, in fact, we find a different pattern: the two schools with the most students who comment about lack of preparation are a medium-selectivity school (20%) and a high-selectivity school (14%)—and not one of the low-selectivity schools. In contrast, of the two schools with the fewest students who describe lack of preparation, one of them is a high-selectivity campus (7%) the other is a low-selectivity campus (5%) in our study.
However, we encounter a perhaps more expected result when students describe the fourth most common category of reasons for experiencing stress: the drive to satisfy internal standards of perfection. As one graduating student majoring in international relations explains: “I think the type of student that goes to [this school] is probably someone who’s an overachiever, and anxiety-driven. So I think it’s definitely … a problem that some people have to get really worked up about the work they have to do.” A first-year student says: “And I do see a lot of stress. I just have noticed it in a few of my close friends … They’ve been really, really stressed to the point where I have been concerned, and I talk to them about it. I think especially at [this school] where people really wanna do well, and not necessarily even in terms of grades … They really wanna be the best, and they are kind of perfectionists, it becomes a problem.”
Unlike the other categories, the most comments relating to perfectionism come from students at the high-selectivity schools. At least two possibilities arise: (1) students with a strong sense of “internal perfectionism” are attracted to a particular type of school and student body, and/or (2) students who attend these schools develop a heightened internal drive over the course of the college experience. The former reason seems more likely. Some students explicitly discuss the “high school effect,” in which even to get into these highly selective colleges and universities, you need to be flawless: “A lot of people here, I feel like they have a lot of pressure. Like, in high school they had a lot of pressure to do well, and they’ve kind of carried that over into college, and feel like … they need to be meeting impossible standards. And, they feel a lot of stress over that still. I think if you’re pursuing a higher education, that there’s like a certain level of perfectionism that a lot of people are dealing with.”
However, when we look closely at these three schools with the most students who comment about perfectionism, we notice a big difference. One of the schools has far more students who comment (35%) in contrast to the peer schools (each at 13%). Students at this “perfectionist” school are notably overzealous about their academic work, as well as their commitments to extracurricular activities on campus. A first-year student who describes the student body as “busy” talks about this “über” passion at his school: “And it’s hard because everybody here wants to do as much as they possibly can, and people don’t know in general how to say no … And people care a lot about their academics, but the amount of cocurricular obligations that people sign themselves [up for], or extracurricular obligations that people sign themselves up for is unparalleled. It’s ridiculous.”
We would not have predicted that comments about academic rigor as the most common cause of mental health would have emerged equally from all different types of schools. (If you are skeptical, ask a friend to predict the results of our study.) For example, one might have hypothesized that students at the more selective schools would talk more about striving for academic success, while students at the less selective schools would be more likely to lament lack of academic preparation. Moreover, our predictions might also have been far from the actual state of affairs — that students at the more selective schools actually discuss lack of preparation, and that students at the less selective schools are stressed about academic success, not just matriculation and graduation. Put another way, one already familiar to readers, students across disparate campuses turn out to be more alike than different.
Time for a different perspective. On measures from a variety of studies, students nowadays are being asked to do much less than they once were — reading, writing assignments, and tests are all on the decline. Also, thanks to grade inflation, many campuses have a high number of “A” students. A well-known study, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift, presents a disturbing picture of meager student learning across the collegiate spectrum. Notwithstanding the pressures and the presumably well-intentioned efforts of faculty and administrators, it has proved difficult to demonstrate powerful effects of learning in college. Experiencing stress does not seem to produce more effective learning. Indeed, it may even prevent learning — a challenge that the entire sector needs to confront.
So, the question arises: Why, on the one hand, are students worried about success and perfection, and on the other hand, apparently learning less and having less ambitious learning aspirations? Herein lies one of our major contentions: If students are coming to college simply to get a degree and build a resume in order to move on to the next stage in life, they may come with inappropriate or inadequate expectations — feeling overwhelmed in facing the central educational mission of college, which entails more than just “checking the boxes.” Certainly, many students come to college with sufficient skills and knowledge to “do well”; but students also need to come prepared to do more than develop a “successful” portfolio, if they are to engage deeply in the hard work that (in the eyes of faculty) is required to explore the intellectual landscape and to transform one’s mind.
We believe that our joint recommendations of onboarding and intertwining (detailed in the concluding chapters of the book) can help to assuage this disturbing situation — and, if we are fortunate, increase the probability that higher education can achieve what we deem to be its central mission. Put succinctly, we’d like students to see growth and learning as their goal, rather than getting a high grade.