Why the Wrong College Match Can Be Bad for Your (Mental) Health

mental healthThe top 50 or so colleges in this country have become some sort of Holy Grail.

They are often viewed as a key to the kingdom of “success”. So, securing a spot at one of these incredibly selective institutions is considered a large leap on the road to a lifetime of triumph and achievement. It’s certainly easy to see why people think this. The contacts you make when your professors are Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners or when your classmates are the children of senators and Fortune 500 CEOs are clear; however, few people consider the health implications of attending this elite class of schools.

The water is not tainted, nor is the air quality appreciably different. But, make no mistake about it. Students need to consider the significant health concern when finding the right “fit”.

Mental health on campus

Mental health issues on college campuses are grabbing headlines and overwhelming campus resources like never before. According to the American College Health Association’s 2012 National College Health Assessment, “…more than 50 percent of students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety. About a third reported feeling so depressed it was difficult to function.”

“Students at Ivy League schools seem to be having an even more difficult time. Rates of attempted suicide at Harvard College are almost twice the national rate, and 35 percent of Princeton students said that they developed a mental health issue after coming to campus.”

High costs of the elite colleges

As a society, we continue to glorify elite colleges, and they should be applauded for offering a great education. But, what is the cost of celebrating such a small number of colleges while nearly ignoring all the rest? Those who don’t gain admission may see themselves as failures, but, those who attend may actually have it worse. They often feel intense and continuing pressure to prove that they belong and may eventually crack because of it.

A recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “The Myth of the Ivy League”, says, “This dysfunctional level of stress exemplifies our destructive tendency to value productivity over health. But it’s also exacerbated by the traditional narrative that equates graduation from a top-tier university with success, and, by proxy, well-being.”

At one high school, students announce their college acceptances in class. The volume of the applause is directly related to the selectivity of the college. Not only is this damaging to the student who may have fought hard against, say a learning disability or personal crises to make it to college–any college–but it adds pressure to the loudly-lauded, ivy-bound student who may discover they don’t fit in once they get to campus but stay for fear of disappointing friends and family.

What really matters

We should be happy for any student who has found a home. A place where they truly feel they belong as they further themselves. For some, this may be a trade school. Before you look unfavorably upon them, remember that when your toilet overflows on your marble-tiled bathroom floor or your BMW won’t start, without plumbers and mechanics, we’d all be in deep trouble.

The real message, here, however, is to search carefully. Don’t look at college statistics as the barometer of where you should apply. Look at the atmosphere. See what opportunities students have and check the climate on campus. This is information that is much more difficult to quantify than average standardized test scores, but perhaps more important. Use college search tools to narrow down your choices, but then talk to students, read the campus newspaper, and most importantly, visit and get a feel for life on campus.

Don’t look for a place you can survive, look for a place you can thrive. Your health depends on it.

4 thoughts on “Why the Wrong College Match Can Be Bad for Your (Mental) Health”

  1. Lisa Scott says:

    Excellent advice. I graduated nearly thirty years ago from
    a “wrong choice” school and this has had an enormous
    impact on my adult life: personally, professionally, and socially.

    Try to overcome “name” as the most important consideration.
    You still have to function well in an intense environment and
    the reality of that is harder than you may think.

  2. Paddi mcgrinder says:

    Excellent article. Very thought provoking.

  3. marcia nwosu says:

    We urged my son to attend a far-away school so that he can grow and mature away from home. Now he’s miserable, feels like he’s in prison and cannot relate to other students there – small southern school while he’s from North east. On wkends everyone goes home and the school is dead with no activities. He wants to withdraw mid semester but will he still owe the full fees?

    1. Allison Wignall says:

      Hello Marcia! That would be a great question to ask the school’s Financial Aid Office. They can give you more in-depth details on those policies, but generally speaking students will have to pay back financial aid that was given to them, and still pay off student loans they took out.

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