Chancellor’s Letter: Anxiety and Admissions

By Chancellor Carol T. Christ

Berkeley’s admissions policies for athletes include a number of checks and balances specifically designed to protect the integrity of the admissions process and to ensure that students are qualified both in academics and athletics. There should not be side or back doors for admission to Berkeley. While we are committed to doing what we can to ensure our University won’t fall prey to illegal admissions schemes in the future, I also want to make sure we don’t lose sight of broader, perhaps more significant, issues that have been brought to the fore by this scandal.

I am often asked how students have changed over the course of my career. Unfortunately, that is not a difficult question to answer. Levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges among our students have significantly increased. According to the National College Health Assessment, 63 percent of college students reported feeling “overwhelmingly anxious,” 43 percent said they “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function,” and 13 percent said they had considered suicide in the last year. On our campus, over the course of the last five years, we have seen a 36 percent increase in the number of students seeking mental health care and a significant rise in the number of students with suicidal ideation. We have responded by adding new programs and personnel to educate, treat, and support our students, but we as a society must do more to address the sources, not just the symptoms of this phenomenon.

While there are certainly multiple causes at work here, I am concerned that our society places too much emphasis on where a student attends college, attaching a false and exaggerated value to attending a small number of elite institutions. A recent high-school survey asked students to rate the impact of 19 potential stress factors. Number one on the list? Pressure to get into a good college. Left unaddressed, our cultural frenzy around admissions to a small number of highly selective universities will continue to exacerbate a public health crisis with real long-term consequences.

There are many good college choices for every student. What matters most in my experience—what determines how much an individual student gets out of college—is what that student puts into it, as well the extent to which an institution’s academic offerings, culture, and community match and support the student’s needs and interests. Prestige is no substitute for the power and long-term benefits of real learning and education. Elite institutions, including Berkeley, do not have some sort of magical pixie dust that we simply sprinkle on our undergraduates to launch them on a guaranteed trajectory to financial success, professional satisfaction, and personal fulfillment. The perpetuation of such myths exacts a toll on our students.

I also realize that some of the stress and tension among parents and children comes from the fear that admissions is not a level playing field. At Berkeley we make a concerted effort to make sure applicants understand that admissions is not a mere “numbers game.” We do what is called a holistic review of every applicant, looking not only at test grades and scores, but also at students’ achievements in the context of their opportunities, challenges, and socioeconomic status. The University of California is also assessing the benefits of continued reliance on the SAT; I myself have a growing concern that the test does not provide a level playing field (much research shows that the most immediate and consistent correlation with SAT scores is family wealth) and the test has less predictive value than we would like in regard to student performance.

As Californians, we must also confront another source of stress—the very large number of applications received by competitive universities. Worried about how hard it is to get in, students apply to longer and longer lists of schools; six of our UC campuses now get more than 100,000 applications every year. Come March, when admissions decisions go out, there are inevitably more disappointed than elated students. In the context of the rising importance of a college degree, this mismatch between supply and demand, this growing sense of urgency in the face of a limited good, only serves to supercharge anxiety.

I have no illusions that there are easy solutions to any of these challenges, but the stakes are high and now, in the context of the national debate and discussion about the scandal’s meaning, the time is ripe for a clear-eyed look at these troubling trends and their underlying causes.

From the Summer 2019 issue of California.
Filed under: Cal Culture
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Equality, anxiety and free admission are three of our most important issues that must be dealt with by UC, and all institutions, if we are going to pass on a legacy that is as good as the one the Greatest Generation passed on to us. However, current events are proving that time is running out because we are also experiencing out of control climate changes that are destroying resources and opportunities for us to pass on an acceptable legacy. Yet we still have UC investing in fossil fuels, as reported in “We Demand a Fossil Free UC” by City on a Hill Press and produced by understandably anxious UCSC students. UC must divest investments in fossil fuels immediately, and all necessary UC resources must be applied immediately to ending the global warming crisis with the greatest sense of urgency or we might as well forget all other issues because time shall run out to guarantee and acceptable quality of life. Chancellor Christ, I believe that you are the best UC leader to make the right things happen before time runs out.
The gravest lesson of history was documented by Will and Ariel Durant: When a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the changes of change. Global warming is proving that we are failing once again, and our newest generations shall suffer the consequences.
I’ve been studying your Evolution 101 website, and one conclusion stands out: With rising temperatures and further climate fluctuations, we expect more examples of evolution in response to global warming to come to light. Such rapid evolutionary shifts are disturbing and suggest the gravity of this global threat, but even more unsettling is the likely fate of many species with long generation times and low levels of genetic variation: extinction. For these organisms, climate change may simply outpace their ability to evolve. QUESTION: Is the 2006 Global Warning conclusion in CALIFORNIA Magazine still correct, because climate change is outpacing our ability to evolve?
Chancellor Christ, we must focus on your conclusion: “Levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges among our students have significantly increased.” It is time to dedicate our highest priority to the future of our newest generations by demanding that the 2020 election assign the highest priority for political campaigns to their future, and the future of the human race. One paramount reason for increased levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges for students, and the public, are most certainly the out of control global warming disasters we are currently experiencing worldwide. Academic institutions, that are most qualified to meet the challenges of change that threaten our civilization today, must provide the leadership for implementing this imperative with the greatest sense of urgency.
I’m so pleased to see this coming from the top of the system! As a UC Berkeley Alum (MSW ’91) who works with “High Achieving Teens” as my professional niche, I can 100% support the statements in this letter. I’ve witness a huge increase in high school teens who are “good kids” & “high achievers”, presenting with symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorders. They’re overbooked, sleep deprived, and eat poorly. Teaching these teens, and their parents, proper balance, perspective, and healthy lifestyle habits is so critical before they ship off to college.