In an effort to improve student mental health, Cornell University’s College of Engineering will reduce the maximum number of credits students can take each semester, the college announced Thursday.
The move comes in response to a universitywide mental health review, completed in 2020, which recommends a number of measures to reduce student stress and anxiety. They include implementing grading on a curve, mandating meetings between students and advisers, exploring pass-fail assessments, and establishing a credit limit at each college.
For engineering students, that means beginning next semester, they will be limited to a maximum of 20 credits per semester, down from the current 23. The total number of credits required for a degree remains unchanged and varies by major. About 13 percent of engineering students took more than 20 credits last semester, and 0.5 percent took more than 24, according to a Cornell spokesperson.
The mental health review “specifically cited academic credit limits as an effective strategy for decreasing student stress and anxiety in a manner that complements our emphasis on excellence,” engineering deans Alan Zehnder and Miranda Swanson wrote in a statement to Inside Higher Ed.
After more than a year of internal discussions and faculty input, the College Curriculum Governing Board approved the change for the engineering college. It is also reducing the “hard cap”—the extent to which students can exceed the limit—from 27 to 24 credits, Zehnder and Swanson explained. Students enrolled in certain workshops or a physical education course are allowed to go up to 24 credits; others who want to exceed the 20-credit limit must submit a petition to get permission.
“The Cornell Engineering community aims for excellence in everything we do, including our efforts to foster and sustain a diverse, engaged, and caring environment where all members can flourish,” read the statement from Zehnder and Swanson. “In addition to ensuring that students are intentional about the courses they enroll in and do not overextend themselves in the short term, adherence to a reasonable credit limit signals to all students the importance of maintaining balance that will be critical for sustained success over the course of their lives and careers.”
The credit-limit change comes as institutions nationwide are grappling with rampant student mental health issues, heightened by the disruption and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. STEM students have been especially hard-hit, said Norman Fortenberry, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education. He said he’s heard many engineering faculty fret about the mental health of their students.
“I believe that the stresses have been particularly significant on students such as engineers, but also any of the lab sciences, including the life sciences, chemistry, etc., where students are struggling to achieve the full academic experience, which is often dependent on laboratory courses,” Fortenberry said.
While he isn’t aware of engineering institutions creating specific policies or programs to help with students’ mental health, he said he has heard of some institutions offering more flexibility on testing and using projects to reduce the pace and pressure of academic courses.
Lynn Pasquerella, president of American Association of Colleges and Universities, said college and university leaders across the country are seeing increased mental health needs among students at all levels, due to some combination of COVID-19, the financial crisis, the murder of George Floyd and now the invasion of Ukraine.
“There’s a sense of despair and hopelessness among so many students,” Pasquerella said. “And high-profile [suicide] cases—Worcester Polytechnic, Cornell and other institutions—have drawn attention to the need for ensuring that we look at human development and student well-being as central to the work that we do in educating students and preparing them for work, citizenship and life.”
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, known for its rigorous academic environment, has seen seven students deaths this year, at least three of them by suicide. Cornell University has a reputation as a “suicide school,” in part because some of the deaths have been highly visible, involving students jumping into gorges. In 2010, two of the three deaths by suicide were of engineering students. Among the four student deaths at Stanford University in the past 13 months, one was an engineering student and one a medical student.
Pasquerella said the high-pressure culture of STEM is known to exacerbate stress and other mental health concerns among students.
“STEM has a tradition of weeding, ranking and sorting students,” Pasquerella said. “And it creates such enormous stress. There’s often high-stakes testing and the assumption that if you don’t do well on your first few exams, then you don’t cut it in the field.”
Pasquerella said institutions with engineering schools are looking at ways to mitigate stress, not just by reducing credits but also by eliminating some high-stakes tests. She said some institutions are instead having students create portfolios, which assess students over time and look for continuous improvement.
“At AAC&U, we talk about the dangers of asking students to answer questions for which we already know the answers, when we could be challenging them to grapple with unscripted problems that are emblematic of the kinds of problems that they’ll face in work and life,” Pasquerella said.
While some institutions might follow Cornell Engineering in setting credit limits, Pasquerella said others are implementing a variety of other initiatives to address mental health concerns—including shadow grades, in which first-year students get to see their first-semester grades, but they don’t appear on their transcripts.
“We know through our own surveys and research at AAC&U that this is at the forefront of the minds of college leaders today—mental health and well-being of students on campus,” Pasquerella said.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24-7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).