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Chancellor’s Letter: Anxiety and Admissions

June 20, 2019
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.

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