Dickinson College freshmen typically show up at an annual fall activity fair wide-eyed and with a pen in hand, ready to sign up for 10 activities or more, said Matt Harper, a senior who is no slacker in the activity realm himself.
"Your eyes are bigger than your stomach. Believe me," said Harper, who, over his four years at Dickinson, has participated in theater, has served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, has worked as an admissions tour guide and a writing tutor, and has participated in a service and social organization -- among other activities.
Dickinson, a liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania, had a new message awaiting students when they buzzed onto campus this fall ready to storm the activity fair: Slow down.
Calling for a "break in behavior," Dickinson’s president, William G. Durden, outlined in his convocation speech his argument that by sending the message that packed résumés are a prerequisite for college admissions, institutions of higher education have been complicit in cultivating a culture of "busyness" first among high school students, and then the undergraduates they evolve into. Hoping that his message spreads to inform undergraduate life and admission policies at other colleges, Durden is asking students to do more with less, picking and pursuing fewer activities deliberately and intentionally.
"Busy is often superficial. You must listen. You must pause, you must have intentionality, and busy for too long has been a substitute for substance," Durden said in an interview last week.
"I told our students explicitly that it is time for them, with us, to develop a culture of intentionality, and parallel that with a culture of discipline. The intentionality is to make sure that the activities they’re engaging in beyond their coursework are what they want to do, and to make sure that when they’re working in those areas that they engage them more thoroughly."
There’s no magic number of activities students should strive for, said Durden, explaining that individual students can handle different commitment loads. And there’s nothing in place to restrict Dickinson students from over-committing themselves if they so choose. Durden has followed up his convocation speech with a series of talks with students, hoping to bring about change in an informal way, and while Harper said there has not yet been an extensive outreach effort, the message is slowly starting to creep across students' radar screens.
Durden believes that embracing the new philosophy will not only reduce the financial burden on colleges to offer extravagant numbers of activities to satisfy students’ consumer urges, but also will be a welcome relief to both undergraduates and high school students seeking admission. "They’re tired; they’re frankly tired," Durden said. "It’s their own form of rat race and they want to get off. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to be ambitious, but they know that they’re not totally in control of their lives when they’re on this busy track, this pinwheel that’s going around."
The new message is applicable to both current and future students, Durden said. Robert Massa, Dickinson’s vice president for enrollment and college relations, said that the admissions staff has increased its emphasis on admitting especially focused, directed students in recent years, rather than those involved with a dozen or more activities, but added that it is impossible to predict whether that trend will escalate in the next admissions cycle until the number of applicants is known. "Within the last couple of years, we’ve looked really carefully at students who have been passionate about one activity and have seen that through to a major level. That has been, I would say, probably more important in our admissions process than it was before. Absolutely," Massa said.
"I applaud (Durden's) initiative," said Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. Dungy said she does not know of any other college or university that is actively advocating such a message.
"When we think about what we want for the outcomes of a college degree -- we want students to think for themselves, to be able to manage their lives, to have a college experience that they enjoy," she said. "If more admissions officers and more presidents say, ‘It’s not the quantity that counts, it’s the quality of what you’ve done,’ students can learn skills and passions that they can use the rest of their lives."
Yet, Jacque Eccles, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and co-author of the 2006 study , "Organized Activity Participation, Positive Youth Development, and the Over-Scheduling Hypothesis," said that while she endorses Durden’s desire to untie high activity participation levels from college admissions, the statement that students enter college already stressed from being "too busy" in high school is generally false. "It’s simply not the case that kids from 5-18, on average, are running around and are too stressed," she said. "In fact, 50 percent are doing nothing outside of school."
Eccles said that just 5 percent of kids are participating in structured, organized activities for more than 20 hours a week – and "very few of these highly active kids report that they are stressed; the vast majority of them report that they do it because they enjoy it." Even the most highly selective institutions, those that attract the top students, wouldn’t be likely to fill freshman classes with students stressed by the pressure to do activities, she said, since the percentage of children and adolescents ages 5-18 who feel that way hovers around just 1 to 2 percent nationally.
"I think it’s very important that kids find their passions. I think it’s very important that they engage in the things they love to do," Eccles said. "But the argument that students are too busy is just wrong for kids in high school today."
"There’s no evidence to support that claim, for all but a handful of kids."
But Harper, who, as managing editor of The Dickinsonian, wrote a September 29 editorial  in the student newspaper about admissions stress, said that the handful of students top colleges are seeking are those who are extremely involved in high school. He said he’s noticed a different attitude in both his activities and his classes this year -- a sense that more is expected of him in each of his commitments. Yet, Harper doesn’t know how much of this shift can be attributed to Dickinson’s new message, and how much to the fact that as a senior, the stakes are higher.
While he thinks he might learned the virtue of balance earlier and been more "emotionally healthy" if the new philosophy had been in place since his freshman year, Harper said he does worry that the "quality over quantity" message could, if taken to its extreme, risk discouraging students from the sort of self-discovery that is inherent in activity participation in both high school and college. If students are encouraged to focus too early on, could they lose the opportunity to discover something that might otherwise become a life passion?
"‘I have to do everything because I might miss something,’" Durden quoted the popular notion. "That is a somewhat dangerous proposition. It just keeps you moving. What you can do is examine a few different activities, you see that one doesn’t match, you start another one. You just don’t do another at once."
Harper said students naturally migrate toward numerous activities freshman year, and just as naturally pare down over their four years. He said a value of the new message could be in letting students know that such a trend is normal, and in fact, a manageable activity load is what they should aim for – helping to catch students who might, thinking that maintaining a heavy extracurricular schedule is normal and expected, otherwise flail and potentially fail.
On the other hand, Massa said he wouldn’t want a high school student who is exploring a variety of different activities but hasn’t yet found an obvious niche to be discriminated against in the admissions process. He conceded that it can be difficult to distinguish seekers from "résumé-padders," but thinks the application essay is the most effective tool for colleges to tell the difference between the two.
Massa added that he doesn’t think Dickinson is unique in its desire among selective colleges to admit students who have excelled in one or two particular areas, but that the message hasn’t yet gotten to many high school students. "It’s just like everything else in our society. More is better. That’s the message that we send. That really is not true for the selective colleges."
Harper said there are misperceptions of what high school and college students need at each transition point: first the college admissions process, and then the move either to the working world or graduate school. "The problem is there’s a misunderstanding or a miscommunication among students about what the best approach to moving on is," said Harper, adding that if other colleges don’t embrace Dickinson’s message, at both the admissions and the undergraduate experience level, it’s possible that students who embrace it could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. "You’re creating a better student, but you’re creating a better student who is unlike most of the other students in the world," he said. "That’s the sort of Catch-22 -- if the rest of the world doesn’t follow along, then is it worth continuing this ideal if it’s not going to be beneficial in the long run?"
Durden said that while he hopes the message spreads, his primary concern is in enhancing the Dickinson education. "Some will say that change in higher ed only occurs if Harvard moves first," he wrote in an e-mail.
"We are not concerned about that comment. We find it too provincial -- parochial, if you will -- and an excuse often for abdicating individual institution(al) responsibility and action. We hope others will engage -- I would trust some already are and our pronouncements will be for them old news! -- but if they don't, this will not influence our actions nor curb our enthusiasm. We are merely acting now on what we believe is ultimately good for students, pre-collegiate education and collegiate education."