By Vikram Rawal
Ever since the turn of the century, there has undoubtedly been an increased focus towards students’ academic pursuits and results, as parents look to help their children receive admission into elite universities and thus to ostensibly lead them to a prized career path which will gift them financial success, social and societal respect, and ultimately a supposed greater level of happiness.
Nonetheless, the sheer number of children who are pursuing heavily academic fields of study, such as medicine or engineering, as well as the recent mental health movement and the concern surrounding the potentially overwhelming pressure for students to perform academically, elicits the question of whether academia is overrated.
The above proposition may sound absurd and illogical to many students and parents. In fact, statistics show that a post-secondary education is valued more than ever in today’s society. As an example, the percentage of the US population who had completed four or more years of college in 1950 was around 5%. In 2019, that figure was around 35%.¹ And given the competitiveness and the “Knowledge Age” which we currently live in — where knowledge, ideas, and abilities are valued over material possessions — the dramatic increase shouldn’t be at all surprising.
Indeed, as a high-school student in a relatively competitive environment, I personally face pressure to perform well academically each and every day. It’s arguably one of the most challenging aspects of being a high school student — every day brings forth new material, new challenges and often another assessment to ace. All the while the competition surrounding university admissions is heightening year by year, both academically as well in consideration of students’ extracurricular pursuits.
Imagine the state of admissions for the most competitive universities and programs in 2030 – “The cutoff for this year was a 99.4% average. Admitted students founded an average of 1.7 companies and 3 non-profits, and have volunteered for an average of 450 hours. We regret to inform you that we are unable to admit you this year, and we wish you all the best in your academic endeavours.”
That may have been an exaggeration, but in truth, not by much. With every new day comes another ten hurdles to clear, lest you should mistime one of your jumps and fall flat on your face, at which point you may or may not spring up and continue to run, a full five seconds behind the runner right beside you moments ago.
Far from an imagined extreme hypothetical, this is how I personally envision my life from time to time; a never-ending race around a track whose end is unattainable, where the runners trample each other like wild bison in a confused herd and the hurdles have been placed ridiculously close to one another.
I consider myself lucky because, unlike many, I have a visible goal in mind; I am passionate about computer science and mathematics and can envision myself thoroughly enjoying whatever occupation I may be offered in a few years time within that realm (though I’m certainly not a fan of the traditional 9-5 positions which most people eventually find themselves in). I can only imagine what it feels like to be working so hard and for so long towards a career path which does not interest one in the slightest — yet this is the unfortunate situation many students find themselves thrown into.
The mental toll which a rigorous education and constant assessment-taking can take on even the most academically-inclined and well-adjusted students is uncomfortably bearable at best. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a study conducted on American teens in 2014 found that the average reported stress level for teens during the school year was 5.8 on a 10 point scale (with 10 being the highest possible amount of stress). In comparison, adults’ average stress level was calculated to be 5.1.² The study also reported a strong correlation between teens’ higher stress levels and their lack of sleep, exercise, and proper nourishment.
So the question remains: Are the tangible benefits — the practical knowledge, the degree, the prestigious job, the lucrative pay, the invaluable connections, the respect which one gains by virtue of their job — worth the immense physical and mental toll which one will inevitably experience at some point in their academic lives? Is it worth the gruelling effort for every percentage point and the countless hours spent hunched over a desk, hours which should be spent with family and friends?
For many, the answer is a resounding yes. However, for some, education presents itself as an unavoidable burden rather than as a gateway to the positive impacts listed above. Furthermore, the social atmosphere surrounding academic failure, coupled with external pressure from family and friends, can lead to devastating consequences — especially during teenage years, when we’re all somewhat unsure of ourselves and seeking approval from others.
In a large-scale study published in Depression and Anxiety (a monthly, peer-reviewed medical journal), over 67,000 college students from over 100 educational institutions around the world were asked questions concerning their mental health and wellbeing. Alarmingly, one in five students have reported thoughts of suicide — clearly a product of the stressful environment which they live in and the external pressures which they face each and every day. Plus, the study demonstrated that suicide rates are increasing at a disconcerting pace: From 2007 to 2015, the suicide rate of boys aged 15–19 increased by 30%, and the suicide rate of girls of the same age range doubled.³ While this increase can certainly be attributed to a variety of different factors, there is no doubt that a higher level of academic stress is one of the leading causes.
And the downsides don’t stop there. Studies show that the combination of certain negative aspects in a student’s suboptimal lifestyle can have definite and significant long-term consequences. For instance, the lasting effects of sleep deprivation can include, but are not limited to memory issues, weakened immunity against viruses, risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain, and risk of heart disease.⁴ The key takeaway is that the sacrifices students often make in order to succeed academically may come back to haunt them — even after they’ve accomplished their goals and adjusted their lifestyle accordingly.
So the message for students is simple: know what you want. I’m not telling you to drop your pens and textbooks and to let go of your professional aspirations to lead a more balanced lifestyle. If you really want to see yourself as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer (or any other comparable profession), then go for it and don’t look back. But if you really don’t know what you’re doing in a particular program or field of study and you consistently find yourself trapped in a seemingly endless tunnel of toil and tears, don’t be afraid to walk out the way you came in and to choose a path which will bring you the intangible, yet invaluable happiness that one should value above all else.
- Duffin, Erin. “Percentage of the U.S. population with a college degree 1940–2018, by gender.” Statista. Accessed January 2, 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/184272/educational-attainment-of-college-diploma-or-higher-by-gender/
- Bethune, Sophie. “Teen stress rivals that of adults.” American Psychological Association. Accessed January 2, 2020. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/04/teen-stress
- Burrell, Jackie. “College and Teen Suicide Statistics.” Verywell Mind. Accessed January 2, 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/college-and-teen-suicide-statistics-3570768#
- Watson, Stephanie and Kristeen Cherney. “The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Body.” Healthline. Accessed January 2, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/sleep-deprivation/effects-on-body#1