FOR AT LEAST A CENTURY, higher education in the United States has been a source of national pride — and admired around much of the world. But recently, large segments of the American public have indicated a sense of dissatisfaction with it. Indeed, many have gone so far as to assert it is not in the national interest.
This could stem from the costs of college, a belief that higher education is tilted politically to the left, or skepticism that non-vocational education is a waste of time and money. Regardless, if there were ever a time for a careful study of higher education in the United States, it is now.
So, in 2012, we set out to understand what is really happening on campuses. This was no easy task. We spent five years visiting 10 vastly different campuses, carrying out over 2,000 intensive interviews, each lasting an hour, on average. On each campus, we interviewed approximately 50 incoming students and 50 graduating students, as well as faculty, senior administrators, trustees, young alums, parents, and job recruiters.
What we found surprised us, to say the least.
Contrary to what one might gather from the press, the vast majority of students are not preoccupied with political correctness, free speech issues, or even costs. What they are worried about, however, are their GPAs and resumes. They struggle with mental health challenges and widespread feelings that they don’t belong and of alienation from peers, the academic agenda, or the ethos of their institution.
While there remains much to admire about our higher education system, the sector has lost its way and stands in considerable peril. And our sobering conclusion was reached well before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has proved disruptive for all institutions, most especially for the less affluent ones.
This is not to say the college experience is a lost cause. Indeed, at its best, it presents a unique opportunity to learn, explore, prepare for the future — and even transform oneself. But if higher education is to be successful in the 21st century, it needs to be sharply reframed.
IF, IN 2012, YOU HAD ASKED US to list the biggest problems on campuses, we might have cited alcohol, sexual misconduct, or possibly free speech issues. Mental health probably would not have made the short list. A decade later, we can confirm what those who spend time on campuses have known for some time: Mental health challenges are a major problem.
While some might attribute this to students being “overly coddled,” or social media causing students to feel more loneliness and social anxiety, the majority of students in our study described a different cause altogether: an overwhelming pressure to do well and build the perfect resume.
Among students, the most common explanation about why mental health is the most important problem on campus was academic rigor — the “pressure” of academics. But what exactly is that 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?
Their most frequent explanation focused on achieving external measures of success — securing a high grade-point average, or “doing well” on an exam. “I know a lot of kids who ... get super stressed out over grades and they get really anxious about it,” one first-year student told us. “Intense people make like, ‘You have to have a good GPA, you have to have A’s and stuff.’”
Friendship issues were also a source of stress — making new ones, as well as managing difficult dynamics. Some specifically linked feelings of loneliness with mental health issues.
Others described “cutthroat social environments” or an unhealthy school culture where students feel as though they are in constant competition with others, as well as having to be “on” all the time to keep up with peers. “I think the atmosphere of competition and so much pressure to perform to be the best really, probably, is the driving factor behind a lot of mental issues,” one student said. “It’s just not a place where people feel like they can talk about it with other people, because it would be admitting weaknesses.”
Many others reported feeling like they don’t belong — to the academics of their school, their peers, and/or their institution. As one school administrator told us, “There’s lots of strangers around here, and they’ve come from a high school where they probably knew most of everybody, and they come here and they don’t know hardly anybody.”
IT IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to speak about higher education — or education at all — without addressing diversity. Indeed, the majority of people in our study used the word without prompting. While some focused on diversity of thoughts and ideas, others considered its importance in terms of the wide range of academic disciplines, or highlighted demographic differences.
Students spoke about diversity in both positive and negative ways. On the one hand, they valued opportunities to get to know people with different backgrounds, become familiar with varying perspectives, and participate in new activities; but they also acknowledged and sometimes complained about the lack of diversity on their particular campus. Not a single student in our study maintained that there was too much diversity.
And while some focused on positive experiences that exposed them to people of different backgrounds, students also described a lot of problems with respect to these social groups. In general, they believe these problems are mostly caused by a lack of tolerance and empathy for difference, as well as the use of exclusionary language, such as racial and homophobic slurs.
Students complained that others did not truly understand them, and as a result, they separated into groups of students that are most like them. Some also believed that their peers didn’t know how to conduct productive conversations about issues of race, which often led to frustration. Some talked about blatant discrimination, intolerance, and general insensitivity, aimed especially at minority groups.
“The Black students, we feel that some people here don’t really fully understand what it means to be a person of color in general, everything that you have to go through,” one first-year student said. “And definitely, there are people here who understand. But yeah, it’s just like sometimes you feel like you don’t really fit in.”
SO WHAT ARE THE CAUSES of these problems, and what are the solutions? One problem is what we call “mission sprawl.” Nearly all institutions of higher education have a mission statement. At most schools, they touch on numerous separate issues; it is a rare school that has a single major mission and adheres to it. Most schools, in effect, say they are trying to be all things to all people.
Our remedy? From the day of admission, if not before, students need to be introduced and guided toward the primary academic goals of their campus and encouraged to draw on its academic resources: faculty, library, museums, research labs, writing centers. Too often, key introductory experiences such as college tours focus on things like dormitories, food, clubs, sports, and other pointedly nonacademic features. From the start, the campus needs to onboard the students — helping students to understand and belong to an entire community of learners, dealing with their health issues as much and as soon as possible, and supporting them throughout.
Another problem we see is what we refer to as “projectitis,” the seemingly endless proliferation of offices, positions, and centers that bewilder students, when they are even noticed.
On campus after campus, we found a multitude of extracurricular or other activities — some initiated by students, some by faculty and staff, yet others due to endowments, newly acquired funds, or current buzzwords. To be clear, such activities can be meritorious; but on a campus, projectitis often exacerbates the problem of mission sprawl. Most people on campus do not know or care about the full range of possibilities offered, and what students need or want is often invisible, sidelined, or is overwhelmed by other “glitzier” entities on campus.
On occasion, it is salutary to launch new initiatives to meet newly identified priorities. But projects, centers, and initiatives need to be
curated over time and pruned or eliminated when no longer helpful. Keystone programs should be vetted by the community; they should reflect what the school truly values, embody how the institution operates, and be effective in demonstrable ways.
It’s also important that courses and programs of study are clearly and carefully explained, with expectations spelled out and student progress monitored regularly. The launching of common courses taken by all students is strongly encouraged; as is the avoidance of high-stake grading, particularly in the opening years. In introductory courses, grading should be light and formative, with plenty of opportunity for feedback and support and, optimally, improvements in performance.
Imagine a situation where students believe that they are welcome, that they belong, that they understand the fundamental educational goal of college, are not having to serve many competing masters, and don’t feel pressed to get only straight A’s. Under those favorable circumstances, students’ mental health stresses will be reduced, and they will be better prepared for the rewards that college can uniquely provide — the opportunities to explore, and, possibly, to be transformed.
Wendy Fischman is a project director at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where Howard Gardner is a research professor. This story was adapted from their forthcoming book “The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be” by Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner, published by The MIT Press. All rights reserved. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.