Colleges and universities in both the United States and Canada have a mental health problem. According to a recent report by the Council of Ontario Universities in Canada, the number of students on campus diagnosed with mental health conditions has “more than doubled over the past five years.” The situation is similar in other countries. Increasing numbers of students are struggling with depression and anxiety, and university services are struggling to help them. This situation will most probably only continue to get worse with the uncertainties and upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why has this happened? Why have 65 percent of Canadian and American students reported suffering from “overwhelming anxiety” despite the expansion of campus mental health services and awareness campaigns? Why has the undergraduate experience, a time when young people have a chance to learn and to grow in an intellectually stimulating environment, become a time of pervasive worry about the future coupled with intense determination to get ahead?
The campus mental health crisis likely has many causes, extending from economic precarity, debt and a media-driven atmosphere of crisis to underdeveloped coping skills and unrealistic expectations.
Yet one subject that is rarely broached in debates about student mental health is the hypercompetitive atmosphere that the colleges and universities themselves foster.
As public funding declines for public institutions, costs rise and experts predict collapsing enrollment in the years ahead, colleges and universities have turned to marketing agencies to entice prospective students with alluring images of the collegiate experience as a time of radical self-realization and social mobility. Although such campaigns are often misleading and set unattainable expectations for students, many higher education institutions seem undeterred in their efforts to build their brands to ensure enrollment and expansion.
In Toronto, where I live, I routinely come across college and university marketing campaigns on billboards, bus shelters and subway cars. Most of them traffic in language suggesting unlimited possibilities, implying that such institutions offer students an unparalleled opportunity to make a superhuman impact on the world.
This marketing bait proclaims that anyone could be the next scientific genius, world-changing entrepreneur or literary star -- a promise that you can fashion yourself into someone who is truly extraordinary. The University of Waterloo, for instance, touts its reputation as “Canada’s most innovative university.” Its “Beyond” marketing campaign declares, “We are at our best not when we live up to expectations, but when we leap beyond them. Waterloo is where individuals are challenged to be better, where ideas soar, and where the future takes shape.” Marketing materials feature the institution’s most accomplished professors and students, including a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and an undergraduate writer whose poetry collection sold 500,000 copies worldwide.
In a similar vein, the “Boundless” campaign of the University of Toronto became a prominent feature of campus life for years, including banners and posters with images of famous and fabulously successful graduates, including Margaret Atwood, Roberta Bondar and Paul Schaffer. Those placards highlighted the “boundless impact” of some University of Toronto graduates to convey the “limitless potential” the university offers to everyone. The message to students as well as donors and others was clear: here is your chance to define yourself, to better humanity and to be truly great.
Beyond expectations. Boundless impact. Limitless potential. World-changing. What college or university could live up to such promises? For how many students will they be true?
A generous interpretation is that these campaigns aim to inspire students to work hard to better themselves and their communities. A more cynical framing is that they are merely advertisements, no different than an Apple or Budweiser ad, selling an aspirational vision of life while ignoring the very real possibility of a student incurring insurmountable debt without achieving social mobility and a meaningful career in competitive job markets -- not to mention the economic storms looming on the horizon as a result of COVID-19.
I can see the stress on the faces of my students, and I hear it in their voices as they explain that they need a higher grade. Many of them struggle and strive to secure high marks, useful volunteer opportunities and a dynamic social life. Many work part-time jobs to pay their way. Very few of them will feel “boundless” and delighted by “endless opportunities” for self-discovery and maximal social impact. Thousands won’t even finish their undergraduate studies.
The chasm between marketing-fueled expectation and the typical student experience is wide. Add to that the socioeconomic pressures of deepening inequality, stagnant wages in service economies, global competition and a global pandemic, and it becomes understandable why more and more students feel anxious and depressed, and why some are beginning to question the value of a university degree.
The global COVID-19 pandemic may bring these issues to a head and prove to be a transformative moment for postsecondary education. The everyday realities of the pandemic and the realities of online classes for the next few semesters are sure to elevate student stress. They also have many prospective students re-evaluating the value of a college education.
Rather than doubling down on boasting about rankings and innovation while throwing more “services” at students, colleges and universities can take this opportunity to foster a healthier campus culture by offering a humbler and more holistic vision of what postsecondary education is and can be for students. Helping students develop employable skills is important. But, given the significant and growing mental health concerns among students, I'm not convinced by the claims that since young people desire career success, we should exploit that desire in the current way we often brand, market and frame the purpose of our universities to boost enrollments.
Rather than parroting the clichés of tech firms and entrepreneurs, we should try leading the conversation. We might talk more about learning and intellectual exploration; about pursuing justice, truth and beauty; or about building meaningful communities of intellectually curious and socially committed people. If we drop the breathless rhetoric of endless possibility, a healthier higher education institution becomes possible.