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Making College Less Stressful Without Sacrificing Standards


Is college too hard?  

That’s the question asked by David Wippman, the president of Hamilton College, and Glenn C. Altschuler, a professor of American Studies at Cornell University, in an article noting that over the last several decades college grades have gone up, and the average amount of time students spend on homework has gone down, but “student-reported stress has soared. Colleges and universities have experienced ‘massive’ increases in demand for mental health services, a trend exacerbated by but predating the pandemic.”

The truth is, they admit, we don’t actually know what’s causing the rise in student stress even as the academic demands of colleges have been declining. It could be that more students need to work while they’re in college, or that colleges have become more demanding outside the classroom, or that the world is just more stressful than it used to be. 

“Understanding what’s actually driving the decline will help us understand how best to respond,” they say.

Ultimately, however, they are clear that “As educators, our job is to meet students where they are, without sacrificing standards. That requires renewed efforts to foster a culture of learning that prioritizes academic work over other pursuits and ensures that students have access to adequate support services.”

That’s surely true, but if we’re really going to reimagine college then we think there’s another approach that can solve this problem.

Competency-Based Education Lets Students Prioritize Their Needs

At Calbright, we’re part of an educational movement called “Competency-Based Education” (CBE) which redefines how students are evaluated. Traditional education requires students to put in a pre-set amount of time in any given course. Each class has a specific duration for which one must be present and a required schedule for completing work. It’s a standard so integrated into academics that it’s rarely thought about or evaluated.

But in fact “how much time a student spends in a class” has very little to do with whether they understand the material or have the skills they’re supposed to learn.

CBE takes the opposite approach: it evaluates whether the students have mastered intended skills, and allows students to decide how much time they need to spend studying. Students who have already learned the skills, or who acquire them quickly, can move ahead while students who are struggling with the material or who have life events that prevent them from studying can take the extra time they need. 

Students need support, and Calbright provides a “high touch” approach to online learning that provides students with their own counselors, coaches, and success team to help them every step along the way. We provide access to mental health services, housing support, and all the real life assistance we can. Anything we can do to help keep our students’ lives on track while they study is important. But we also believe that Competency-Based Education is the answer to the question: “is college too hard?” By eliminating the time requirements, by being flexible and accommodating to what’s going on in students’ lives, we can keep our standards high while also reducing stress and accommodating students’ lives and schedules. 

It’s a simple, powerful, idea, and it shows how much things can improve when we reimagine college to make it work for today’s students.

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