Big School Suicide Effect


This April 1 was for many of America’s top high school seniors not a day of jovial pranks, but of momentous decision. Far from the follies of April Fools’ Day, April 1 is the day when many of America’s prestigious colleges and universities reveal their admission decisions. For those fortunate enough to gain admittance to their schools of choice, there will be happy conversation around the dinner table. Parents will ask questions like: What city do you like most, Chicago, Boston, or Ann Arbor? Maybe Nashville or Palo Alto, it’s warmer there. Which school is the most well-known? Who has the most notable alumni?

Not many parents will ask you where you are most likely to survive.

We have always heard that your college years are the best years of your life. However, many campuses around the country are familiar with the tragedy of a student suicide. If the four years we are in college are the best we have, why are undergraduate students purposefully taking their lives? 

Last week, my colleague Mark Kogan wrote an article about suicide on America’s college campuses. Just over a year ago, in the wake of the Cornell tragediesThe Daily Beast published a list of the 50 most stressful colleges. Clearly, a connection can be drawn between stress, a university’s prestige, suicide, and even the season of spring. There is another similarity between the schools Kogan references in his piece: The Daily Beast’s top undergraduate stress cookers and the majority of schools releasing their admission decisions on April 1 are all research-heavy institutes.

Rick O’Donnell’s hiring as a special advisor to the University of Texas Board of Regents has created quite a stir in the Lone Star State. O’Donnell’s $200,000 annual salary ruffled some feathers, but his ideas have proven more controversial. As a senior research fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, O’Donnell published papers entitled, “Is Academic Research a Good Investment for Texas?” and “Let’s Not Forget the Liberal Arts: The Collapse of Undergraduate Teaching.” In the latter article, O’Donnell writes, “There is compelling evidence that tenured professors at large research universities no longer care about teaching undergraduates to read, write, or think critically.”

Clearly, these are controversial statements coming from an advisor to the largest research institution in the state. Certainly there are advantages to attending a large research institution, but there are sacrifices as well. You lose the personal connections that flourish at a small liberal arts college with first-year classes of 16 or 17 students and the four-year relationships that develop between professors and their students. In much of his recent workNew Yorker writer David Brooks emphasizes how important relationships are to the way humans learn and our general mental health.

A recent study cited in Kogan’s article lists “school problems” or academic difficulties as the fourth most likely cause for students' considering suicide (out of 12 possible causes). Academically, college is challenging and stressful, but most students expect, and are prepared, for those pressures. College is also a time of personal growth, which can bring unexpected results for which students are less suited to handle. The top cause of students’ considering suicide was “emotional pain.” For many, it is the first experience living away from family and friends, the most trusted and reliable support group a student has. The work is harder, the nights are longer, and at times, even with so many fellow students, a large university can be a very lonely place. The study also found that suicidal thoughts could be greatly reduced by improving social support networks and fostering a more connected, caring environment. This type of community should be familiar to anyone who has spent time at a small liberal arts college.

Kogan’s call to improve student health services in higher education is well taken, but it is not just the responsibility of the school. As families sit down to dinner this week, they need to ask the right questions. It will be productive to talk about fun cities and far-reaching alumni networks. But it will also be important to ask which college or university educates its undergraduates in a way that develops the whole person and supports that development with engaging professors and multiple creative outlets.

Small liberal arts schools are more likely to provide those outlets. Besides, what’s your rush to go to a large research institution? Chances are you’ll have to apply again for graduate school.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons