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It is time for a reckoning in higher education. On Feb. 3, Inside Higher Ed reported that seven Worcester Polytechnic Institute students have died since July 2021. Three of these students died by suicide, and there are another two deaths that are still under investigation.
Just one student death would be a tragedy for any university, but this STEM-oriented school in Massachusetts has arrived at a moment of crisis—one that mirrors the national emergency recently declared by the surgeon general. WPI, as it is known to the community, is the latest institution to confront the necessity of finding better ways to care for the mental well-being of students, but it is far from the only one to face this issue, and—in fact—it is much more the rule than the exception in this regard.
Because three of these WPI students died by suicide, campus leaders have rightly focused their attention on student mental health and commissioned a task force of 35 university employees in September 2021 to study the problem and to offer recommendations for improving their support structures for students.
The report, which was released in January, outlines many important steps for enhancing student well-being, but it touches only lightly on a key contributor to student stress and, in doing so, makes a mistake that is unfortunately pervasive across higher education. The authors of the report include data from a student survey they issued as part of their investigation. The survey, which garnered 704 student responses, revealed that up to 82 percent of undergraduate respondents feel that there is “too much academic pressure” at WPI.
Academic pressure, of course, can come from a number of different sources. The culture of high-stakes testing in STEM courses is one such source, as are gatekeeping mentalities and heavy workloads. The biggest culprit of all, however, may be the one that is most deeply embedded in our educational infrastructure: grades. And although the report recommends that WPI institute better measures for identifying struggling students, more effective programs for helping students to be resilient and more programs designed to allow faculty to be more introspective about their course design and teaching practices, it says almost nothing about grades and the enormous anxieties traditional grading models cause for students. Why not? Any institution that primarily identifies itself as being “rigorous,” which is the very first word used to describe WPI in the report, has a vested interest in maintaining the grading system responsible for engineering a veneer of rigor. Furthermore, questioning grades is a bridge too far for many academics, because these methods of evaluation are baked into the fabric of higher education.
Meanwhile, we have strong evidence to suggest that grades are making students physically, emotionally and psychologically unwell. More specifically, the stress children, teenagers and college-age students feel about grades along with the pressure they experience from parents and teachers are directly linked to the widely reported mental health crisis in these age groups. Rates of anxiety, depression and even suicidal ideation have spiked dramatically, and academic stress tied to grades is a leading cause of this escalation. We now have evidence from major research studies that these health issues have been getting much worse over time and are not likely to get better without some sort of serious, sustained intervention. A portion of our efforts on this front must be devoted to examining the harm caused by grades.
According to a 2019 report by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds surveyed believe anxiety and depression to be a major problem among their peers, and this same group—many of whom are now the students in our college classrooms—identifies the pressure to get good grades as the most significant factor leading to these mental health issues (88 percent said they feel either “a lot” or “some” pressure about grades). The numbers of teens who experienced depression (13 percent of the 12- to 17-year-olds in a 2017 survey) and who have attempted suicide (8.9 percent of those surveyed in ninth through 12th grade in 2019, according to the CDC) are even more troublesome. The statistics on depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation rates among college students tell a very similar story. Academic stress is directly linked to these health crises, and grades are a major source of this kind of stress.
The situation at WPI isn’t the first time that a university has confronted similar tragic circumstances and failed to sufficiently address the role of grades in contributing to the academic pressures that effect student well-being, and it will not be the last time, either. In 2014, for example, the University of Pennsylvania put together a similar kind of task force in the aftermath of several student deaths by suicide. The report itself acknowledges the kinds of academic stressors felt by students on Penn’s campus: “Like its peer institutions, Penn has a highly competitive academic and extracurricular culture that some students perceive to demand perfection. Such perceptions may lead to pressures to succeed both academically and socially that may be unrealistic and lead to feelings of being overwhelmed. Some experience depression or other forms of distress often evidenced by changes in behavior” (p. 2). Despite this recognition, Penn’s solutions focus primarily on support programs. The report does not address the academic environment substantially in any way, and the words “grade” and “grades” barely appear at all. Such oversights are unfortunately common as more and more colleges and universities develop their responses to the mental health crisis.
We need a wholesale reconsideration of our use of grades in higher education. There are many alternatives that we can use in place of traditional, inequitable grading models, and we are long past due for widespread adoption of these practices. Changing our orientation to grades in no way means we need to abandon academic standards. Far from it. But if colleges and universities leave unexamined and unaltered teaching practices and grading models that serve the false idols of rigor and gatekeeping at the expense of our students’ welfare, then we become complicit in a system that continues to do them harm.
Joshua Eyler is director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi, where he is also a clinical assistant professor of teacher education. He is the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching (West Virginia University Press, 2018) and is currently writing a book called Scarlet Letters: How Grades Are Harming Children and Young Adults, and What We Can Do About It (forthcoming from West Virginia University Press).