The Emotional Costs of Student Success

Andrew Joseph Pegoda wonders about the unintended messages and pressure created by the current emphasis at many colleges.

October 30, 2014

“Success” means many different things. There are as many definitions as there are people (or students in this case).

“Student success” is the big push at colleges and universities across the nation, and this push is largely being forced upon colleges by state legislatures and federal bodies overseeing education. This well-intended goal has many definitions but generally includes a focus on having higher enrollments, more full-time students, students passing their classes (with high grades), and more graduates.

One aspect of this approach is that it tends to, at least sometimes, imply that students who do not graduate or who are not full-time are not successful. Not everyone needs a degree to do what they want in life. Not everyone ultimately decides they want a degree. Additionally, some students only want to take a few courses.

To me at least, “student success” in its ideal and highest achievement has been the hope or goal of students earning higher and higher grades. I always tell my classes I hope everyone earns an “A.” Any of my students can tell you that you have to really work for an “A” in my class. If 50 percent earn an “A”, it’s not because of grade inflation; it’s because they worked really hard for it.

Last night my dad (who is also a professor – I loved teaching and school so much, he decided to follow my steps) and I were discussing different situations we had with students. The conversation evolved into a discussion of the emotional costs of student success.

The basic thought is – and it seems very true from personal experience and experience working with approximately 2,830 students since May 2007 – that there are certain negative consequences to earning an “A” in a class, or especially to having a 4.0.

As someone who earned an “A” in every class as an undergraduate, I can testify to the fact that being an “A” student is lonely.

The “A” student can experience this loneliness because they are spending most of their time studying. Studying instead of partying, hanging out, etc. Additionally, there is a certain negative stigma attached to doing extremely well. The “A” students are labeled as nerds or geeks. People who have no life. People who are different.

Consider the following two conversations (at non-elite institutions, like those most students attend):

“Hey, Sam, What grades did you get this semester?”
“Did well. No big deal but got a 4.0. What about you?”
“Wow. Not that well.”


“Hey, Sam, What grades did you get this semester?”
“Got an A, two Bs, and a C. What about you?”
“Sweet. About the same for me.”

While these quotes are made up, I have seen conversations like this play out many times.

There are at least two implications for educators:

One, although we want our students to all do well, study hard, ask questions, and be 4.0 students, this is an unrealistic goal in a large part because of the negative consequences of making good grades. It is sometimes alienating, and it sets a precedent to continue studying really hard.

Two, for student success to be truly effective – carried to its logical and ideal ends – we need a culture that truly celebrates and embraces thinkers, studiers, questioners. Of course, all students are capable of learning the skills necessary to be the “A” student, but this is not what society or peer pressure really wants or rewards or even allows in some cases. Consider how the Culture of Beer, the Culture of Football, the Culture of Politically-Rewritten-History-Books, for example, and the anti-intellectualism generally therein is vastly different than the Culture of Intellectualism. Consider a world where there are commercials advertising an upcoming talk by a philosopher instead of the newest flavor of beer or the newest gun. The rhetoric of what we advertise speaks volumes to what we truly value.

So as we ask ourselves what we can do to help more students earn higher grades and ask ourselves what we did that caused so-and-so to not reach “their full potential,” we must recognize that at least some of the issues are systematic and institutional. The emotional costs of success are high, too much so for some.


Andrew Joseph Pegoda is completing his Ph.D. in history. He teaches at the University of Houston and at Alvin Community College. He blogs here.


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