Doing well or living well? Competition culture in post-secondary education

Grace Monk, Editor

There are some aspects of higher education that create an environment where students are constantly competing against each other. Competition in post-secondary has its pros and cons, with the bad outweighing the good. As a result of this culture, students find themselves struggling with low self-esteem, burnout, and mental health. 

To be fair, competition within education has many benefits. It encourages students to work hard, increases attention in class, and fosters learning. Student motivation in higher ed is affected by a number of things, including balancing school, life, work, and extra-curriculars. These can all create distractions that affect students’ motivation, and competition challenges students to achieve at high levels. Students learn how to be productive on their own, which is a skill that extends outside of the classroom and can benefit them post-graduation.   

Competition in post-secondary education can also teach students life-skills and build character. It teaches students how to accept and overcome failure. This is beneficial to students after they graduate and begin to enter the workforce and look for jobs. It creates a safe environment for students to fail and boosts their self-esteem when they succeed. Students can also develop a desire to improve and learn new talents.   

While competition culture can be beneficial for students, it can also have a negative effect on them. Competition in post-secondary education places large amounts of pressure on students which leads to stress and anxiety. This encourages students to make school their first priority, which can lead to an unbalanced life. It creates a fear of underperforming and leads to students neglecting their well-being and personal interests. This sets the precedent that having a life outside of their education is unproductive and can lead to stress when students are not focused on school.  

Competition culture in higher education can also lead to burnout, low self-esteem, and a decline in mental health.  Mental health struggles amongst college students is an increasing problem across the nation. The National Institution of Health has reported that 60% of college students met the criteria for one or more mental health problems in 2021, which was a 50% increase from 2013. Neglecting self-care and experiencing copious amounts of stress are leading factors in the decline in mental health amongst college students. According to the American Psychological Association, more than 80% of college students felt overwhelmed by school in the last year and 45% have felt things were hopeless. The APA also reported that 75.9% of college students have an anxiety disorder which is the top presenting concern among college students. This is followed by depression which 74.4% of college students suffer from as well.   

Students that do not suffer from a mental health disorder still experience high levels of stress and anxiety due, which can hinder a student’s ability to function both in and out of school. The World Health Organization defines burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The expectations and pressure that post-secondary education places on students makes it hard to manage stress. Burnout creates feelings of exhaustion, a negative outlook towards one’s education and future, reduces productivity, and increases distance from school and social affairs. When burnout is not treated properly, students are more likely to experience a mental health crisis.  

Ultimately, competition encourages students to prioritize doing well over living well. The competitive nature of post-secondary education does not provide students with time to fail or fall behind. For students to receive the benefits of competition, healthy boundaries need to be set in place. Students can set those boundaries by asking for help and practicing self-compassion. Although competitive culture may foster the desire to be perfect, students should understand that it is okay to make mistakes.  

 Professors can help set healthy boundaries by encouraging students to prioritize their well-being and reward them for doing so. How might this be practiced in the classroom? Professors could consider grading students’ improvement and understanding of the material throughout the semester rather than averaging scores. Or, they might allow students an opportunity to correct their work in order to improve their grades. This can help eliminate the stress students feel surrounding their grades and reduce the negative effects of competition culture. 

 Competition has benefits and should not be diminished from post-secondary education. However, it is important for students and professors to prioritize student well-being and work together to eliminate unhealthy competition within post-secondary education.