Cornell’s New Policy to Fight Student Burnout: Is It Effective?

News came out recently that Cornell University is lowering its maximum credits per semester for engineering students in an effort to support student’s mental health and decrease student burnout.

The article linked above reports that student’s mental health is a large concern at universities like Cornell, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. The pressure to get the best grades, get the best score on exams, and perform well enough to stand out in the field has driven students to “a sense of despair and hopelessness”.

In response, the university has lowered the maximum number of credits that engineering students can take in one semester. The limit is now 20, down from 23. 

What should we make of this situation and the response?

Despair on Campus

The idea of college may come with a variety of connotations. Some may think of wild parties. Others may imagine a quiet library with hard-working students. We could imagine a number of other things as well.

But one thing that comes to mind for many college students is stress. 

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For those serious about their studies, a college education can become a never-ending source of stress and discouragement. The college system building block relies on degrees which in turn rely on grades and exams. A student with a 4.0 GPA receives honor as an elite performer. Exams, papers, and projects are all judged by a number grade.

Students begin to stress out if they get a lower score on an exam. Then their concern becomes whether or not they’ll get enough points to pass the class and earn the degree. This overemphasis on grades not only causes stress, it takes the focus off of learning and puts it on measuring learning.

Soon enough, students find a way to fake it in such a way that they satisfy the requirements of learning measurement (grades, exams, etc.) without actually mastering the subject in question.

This is an important problem. Students are burning out with stress because of the pressure to perform and get the right grades. This is a far cry from the original universities in Western civilization. People established these as places of learning and cultural preservation where it mattered more that you learned, engaged with the world, and thought openly and freely more than it mattered how you measured that.

Restrictions For Your Own Good

Now, let’s examine Cornell’s response to this legitimate problem.

The problem is that students are stressed out, burned out, and in some cases driven to despair and, sadly, even suicide because of the enormous pressure they feel to perform well.

Cornell’s solution is to restrict students from taking on more work than they can handle. Is this an effective solution?

Perhaps, in the short term, it is. Students may need an outside authority to keep them from burning out with too much work than they can handle.

But in the long term, I don’t think this solution is ultimately effective.

What will happen when these students graduate and start working in their careers? Will they return to the stress, pressure, and burnout? What’s keeping them from that? How will they organically develop an understanding of their own limits?

Adults need to be responsible, first and foremost for themselves. If an adult can’t responsibly lead themselves, there’s no way they can lead other people effectively. If a student doesn’t have the work ethic necessary to get things done in college, they won’t magically acquire that work ethic when they reach the workforce. Likewise, if a student doesn’t have the responsibility, self-awareness, humility, and self-control to self-restrict their workload, manage their stress, and rest productively while in school, how are they going to do so in a job that demands so much more than school?

This is by no means to say that students just need to buck up and manage stress (though that may be true in some cases). This is more about a student’s ability to work productively without getting lost in the pressure that they feel from others to perform to a certain arbitrary standard.

Young adults entering the workforce may fear a draconian work ethic standard that leads to workaholism. How are they going to manage this?

The truth is, there will always be more work to do. And you can always do it faster, better, for cheaper, etc. We want our students and young professionals to pursue excellence but we understand that they can’t reach perfection.


Cornell’s response to student stress is well-intentioned but it robs students of the opportunity to limit themselves and practice self-control in the pacing of their education. Few employers will authoritatively place restrictions on how much work can be done in a day or a week. And if the young adult feels pressure (whether perceived or real) to work until they drop, they will. No one is going to stop them by imposing authoritative restrictions. They must learn to self-regulate and balance rest and work together for themselves.

A tightly controlled environment where student well-being is maintained through mandates, policies, and restrictions will only teach students to rely on these external factors for their own well-being and teach them that their well-being is the responsibility of someone else.

We think there is a far better way to go than the Ivy League. Schedule an appointment to learn about our leadership and professional development program Ascend.

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