In an effort to improve student mental health, Cornell University’s College of Engineering will reduce the maximum number of credits students can take each semester, the college announced Thursday.
The move follows a university-wide mental health review, finished in 2020, which recommends a number of measures to reduce students’ stress and anxiety. They include implementing curve grading, mandating student-advisor meetings, exploring pass-fail assessments, and establishing a credit limit at each college.
For engineering students, this means that from the next semester, they will be limited to a maximum of 20 credits per semester, compared to 23 currently. The total number of credits required for a degree remains unchanged and varies by major. According to a Cornell spokesperson, about 13% of engineering students earned more than 20 credits last semester and 0.5% took more than 24.
The Mental Health Review “specifically cited academic credit limits as an effective strategy to reduce student stress and anxiety in a way that complements our focus on excellence,” the deans of the college wrote. engineering Alan Zehnder and Miranda Swanson in a statement to Inside Higher Education.
After more than a year of internal discussions and faculty feedback, the college’s curriculum board approved the change for the college of engineers. It also reduces the “hard cap” — the extent to which students can exceed the limit — from 27 to 24 credits, Zehnder and Swanson explained. Students enrolled in certain workshops or in a physical education course can go up to 24 credits; others who want to exceed the 20 credit limit must submit a petition for permission.
“The Cornell Engineering community strives for excellence in everything we do, including our efforts to foster and maintain a diverse, engaged, and caring environment where all members can thrive,” Zehnder’s statement reads and Swanson. “In addition to ensuring that students are intentional about the courses they enroll in and do not overextend themselves in the short term, adhering to a reasonable credit limit signals to all students the importance of maintaining a balance that will essential for lasting success throughout the course of their lives and careers.
The credit limit change comes as institutions across the country grapple with rampant mental health issues among students, exacerbated by the disruption and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. STEM students have been particularly hard hit, said Norman Fortenberry, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education. He said he has heard many engineering professors worry about the mental health of their students.
“I believe that the constraints have been particularly severe for students such as engineers, but also for all laboratory sciences, including life sciences, chemistry, etc., where students find it difficult to acquire a full academic experience, which often depends on lab classes,” Fortenberry said.
While he is not aware of any engineering institutions creating specific policies or programs to help with student mental health, he said he has heard of some institutions offering more flexibility on testing and the use of projects to reduce the pace and pressure of university classes.
Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, said college and university leaders across the country are seeing increased mental health needs among students at all levels, due to a combination of COVID-19, the financial crisis, the murder of George Floyd and now the invasion of Ukraine.
“There is a sense of hopelessness and hopelessness among so many students,” Pasquerella said. “And high level [suicide] – Worcester Polytechnic, Cornell and other institutions – have drawn attention to the need to ensure that we view human development and student well-being as central to the work we do to educate students and prepare them for work, citizenship and life. ”
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, known for its rigorous academic environment, has seen seven students die this year, including at least three by suicide. Cornell University has a reputation for being a “school for suicide”, in part because some of the deaths have been high profile, involving students jumping into gorges. In 2010, two of the three suicide deaths involved engineering students. From four student deaths at Stanford University in the past 13 months, one was an engineering student and the other a medical student.
Pasquerella said the high-pressure culture of STEM is known to exacerbate stress and other mental health issues among students.
“STEM has a tradition of weeding, categorizing and sorting students,” Pasquerella said. “And that creates enormous stress. There are often high-stakes tests and the assumption that if you don’t do well on your first few exams, you won’t do well in the field.
Pasquerella said institutions with engineering schools are looking for ways to alleviate stress, not only by cutting credits, but also by eliminating some high-stakes tests. She said some institutions instead ask students to create portfolios, which assess students over time and seek continuous improvement.
“At AAC&U, we talk about the dangers of asking students to answer questions to which we already know the answers, when we might challenge them to face unscripted problems that are emblematic of the kinds of problems they will be faced with. face in work and life,” said Pasquerella.
While some institutions might follow Cornell Engineering in setting credit limits, Pasquerella said others are implementing a variety of other initiatives to address mental health issues, including ghost grades, in which students from Freshmen can see their first semester grades, but they don’t appear on their transcripts.
“We know from our own surveys and research at AAC&U that this is at the forefront of concerns for university leaders today — the mental health and well-being of students on campus,” Pasquerella said.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24/7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with local support, information and resources. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).