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Stanford University's Hoover Tower

This week, The Daily Beast posted their piece “The 50 Most Stressful Colleges” (see link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-04-04/the-50-most-stressful-colleges/?cid=hp:beastoriginalsC1). In the piece, the writer or writers emphasized five (5) criteria for college stressfulness: 1) cost; 2) competitiveness; 3) acceptance rate; 4) engineering; and 5) crime on campus rates. Sounds great right? Not if the writer or writers relied mostly on US News and World Report for most of their data in ranking what they believe are the Top 50. It seems to me that reporters with little background in higher education, the psychology of talented high school youth and college students, or financial aid should refrain from writing about such a topic. Still, since they did bring the subject up, it’s probably a good idea to address it from perspectives The Daily Beast would likely not consider.

For starters, the high correlation between their five criteria and the most prestigious research universities in the country — including Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, University of North Carolina, and my doctoral alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University — seems okay on the surface of things. But really, are students at the University of Pittsburgh who are engineering majors less stressed out than English majors at Carnegie Mellon? Or could a student at a liberal arts school like Oberlin be experiencing higher levels of stress than a student at a school not on The Daily Beast’s list — say George Washington University?

Based on my own experiences as a professor and a student, yes, highly selective, research-oriented universities with competitive engineering programs can deliver stress to students on a platter. Yet, it’s not as if the other liberal arts colleges, state colleges and universities, and schools of similar elite ilk not on the list. The Daily Beast could’ve used pre-med and biology programs — such as those at Tufts and Johns Hopkins — as examples of competitiveness, as if engineering students are particularly prone to stress and suicide. I think, though, that this is the main point about The Daily Beast’s piece. It’s the taking of the recent news stories — students killing themselves or murdering students and faculty — and drawing the conclusion that it’s combination of the criteria that’s the difference here.

The piece discounts the experience of millions of college students under the stress of financial aid, whose programs, though not as prestigious, are likely as demanding, and with the pressure of high expectations from their schools and their families. It discounts students, quite frankly, and the baggage they bring with them when they enter college. The schools they list could cost $150,000 a year to attend, have acceptance rates or eight percent or less (I have no idea how Carnegie Mellon made their list with a thirty-seven percent acceptance rate), and pressure-cooker engineering programs, but the suicide rate and violent crime rate would likely not correlate at all. It’s all about how students handle pressure, and how schools help students with managing the pressures they experience at competitive and selective colleges and universities.

I should know. Halfway through my first semester at the University of Pittsburgh, I experienced stress because of the baggage I brought from my Mount Vernon High School days, specifically in the form of a young woman I wanted to date but couldn’t. I spent the last six weeks of that semester missing more than sixty percent of my classes, withdrew into a alcohol-binge one weekend, and generally didn’t seek any social outlets for my emotional and psychological pain. Because I knew that there was a stigma attached to seeking psychological help, I didn’t, and struggled my way through the end of ’87 and into the first days of ’88 wondering if the sacrifices I made to get into college in the first place were actually worth it.

I think that student mental health is a much neglected aspect of pre-K to graduate education. Period. We act as if students and parents are solely responsible for the maintaining of student mental health, when in point of fact, most students and parents see the exploration of the subject as a stigma of some sort. Of course they are wrong. Still, I think that every school and every school district in this country should have at least one psychologist on staff (age-appropriate, of course), and that every student be given a mental health evaluation at least once a year.

Going a step further, I think that mental health fitness should be a part of the college admissions process, and that students who have the academic abilities but show signs of mental health issues be given additional resources to deal with these issues before the stress of higher education has had a chance to effect their undergraduate journey. I also don’t think it would hurt to make faculty, staff and administrators at universities to take professional development seminars in student psychology, so that they themselves can understand the difference between normal and abnormal behaviors of their students.

Some of you will think this idea beyond crazy. After all, those who can’t cut it are losers, right? And, since when can a university look at the mental health fitness of applicants, anyway? How many parts of doctor-patient privilege don’t I understand? I never said that this would be a perfect solution. This would provoke a number of controversies and lend itself to multiple obstacles. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be good for students and parents to have a sense of the kinds of stresses that can affect the well-being — academic and otherwise — of someone before they went off to a college or university?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all on this matter is the issue of competition. There’s nothing wrong with having students in a competitive environment. It often brings out the best in them academically (and the worst, unfortunately, hence my comments in the previous two paragraphs). Suffering setbacks in the process of competition can even teach us more about ourselves and the world around us than constant success. That’s what folks say, at least. So students shouldn’t be afraid to compete. But college campuses — and public schools also — should wrap this competition in a velvet cocoon of excellence. Meaning that from an early age, students are encouraged to strive for and achieve excellence, academically, socially, athletically, and so on. Along the way, healthy competition should be inculcated, but within the context of students performing well to begin with.

All so that by the time students arrive on a college campus, the stress of competition is managed through an atmosphere that is all about excellence. This is not a zero-sum game where the winner takes all and the loser should think about becoming a janitor. These are human beings, after all, whose lives should be about more than A’s, and competition about more than destroying their opponents. It took me until my third semester at Pitt to learn that lesson, which made my transition to a healthier mental health easier.