Even professors think GPA standards are too high

We spoke with Ithaca students about the insane pressure to excel in college

Everybody wants to be the best that they can be in life. For students, this comes in many forms: having a high GPA, being involved in sports or music, leading extracurricular clubs, maintaining a healthy social life, etc. But somewhere along the way, the line between pushing students to be their best and pushing them too far has blurred.

Ithaca College students and staff have started to speak out on this topic, but its effects are hardly limited to a single liberal arts college in upstate New York. It's no secret that the United States has the lowest college completion rate of the economically developing nations, but that problem has somehow worsened in the past few decades. Quoctrung Bui, graphics editor for the New York Times said, “Of 1,027 private colleges studied, 761 have graduation rates of less than 67 percent.”

Based on that data, if private colleges were graded on completion rates in the same way that they grade their students, about 74% of them would fail.

Although these numbers point to something broken in the education system, expectations of students are on the exponential incline. Instead of a 4.0 one must now receive a 4.2 or 4.3 to be “above average.” Prime college applicants must be accomplished athletes, musicians, community service leaders and speak three languages. Is it a surprise that as standards rise to impossible heights the number of students eligible for a college degree continues to lower?

What can staff do about this?

Ithaca College’s staff are recognizing and expressing concern for these impossible standards. Karl Paulnack, Dean of Whalen School of Music said, “For the love of God, why should it NOT be OK to be satisfactory? Is this not insanity? Why have we done this. 'A' is the new 'C'. Excellent is the new OK. Outstanding is the new Acceptable.” And this is precisely the problem. While striving to be one's best induces learning, needing to perfect to succeed is exhausting and stressful.

Students are increasingly reporting debilitating stress, anxiety and worry about their success in college. Standards for excellent students keep rising and more young adults are exhausting themselves to prove they can compete.

“I deeply love my students and I worry that we have created a culture that is sucking the life out of them," Dean Paulnack said. "This is not sustainable.”

Students are speaking out about academic pressures

We spoke with a few Ithaca College students to see how this stressful culture has affected them and their love for education. When asked about stress levels many students report them as being “way too high.”

This is the case for Junior Music Education major Laurel Albinder. She described that though high expectations push her to be a better student and musician, the same cookie-cutter expectations cannot be applied to every single student.

“They treat you like every person can be held to the same standards and expectations no matter what," said Albinder. "Some people aren’t acknowledged as much as they should be, like people work differently and have different strengths.”

Albinder explained that each student has a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Just because a student focuses on topics of high importance to them doesn't mean that they lack other abilities. For instance, a Biology major with high marks in science-related courses and lower marks in Art History courses is not a “bad” student, they're focusing on their area of passion and interest.

This perfect student culture leads college students to carry a heavy discontent with their current position in life. “It makes it hard making relationships with people and being OK with where you are in life," said Casey Quinn, a junior studying English.

"Where you are is OK, and you don’t always have to be looking towards the future," said Quinn. "It leads to this overall unhealthy discontent with where you are.”

Quinn went on to explain that if you take time out of your life as a student to make healthy friendships or work on personal issues, you are made to feel as though you are wasting time. Instead of throwing your roommate that surprise party, you could have been studying. Instead of going to a counselor, you could have been volunteering somewhere in the community.

How can we make it safe to be average?

Something about needing to be a “perfect” student implies that “student” is the only thing that one can identify with. There is no time to be the perfect student AND a caring friend, or be a perfect student AND be an inspiring sister. But these “ands” are what make us human. Cultivating meaningful relationships with friends, family and ourselves is what leads us to grow not just in our craft, but on a personal level as well.

It's easy to neglect our relationships in order to succeed in our careers, but this need for perfection almost encourages such toxic behavior. In order to allow our students to grow not just academically but as human beings, we may need to recreate our culture to accept “average.” Take a look at the students in your life and you may find that this applies to them perfectly. See if there is any aspect of their lives that can be morphed into a safe place to be utterly and beautifully “average.”

Ithaca College