During New Student Orientation, every incoming freshman is warned about the so-called “Stanford Duck Syndrome,” which says, in a nutshell, that appearances aren’t everything. Freshmen are told that, while it may seem like they’re struggling as everyone else is merely gliding along like a duck, in reality everyone is paddling furiously under the water just to keep up.
The idea seemed to earn merit in a recent report on the nation’s 50 most stressful colleges, published by The Daily Beast. In the report, which was published last week amid fierce methodological criticism, Stanford was ranked as the most stressful college in the nation for undergraduate students.
The ranking’s authors did not rely upon campus visits or speaking directly to students. Rather, they developed a methodology that uses data on indirect indicators of stress from several sources.
The researchers believed that two factors were the most prominent in determining stress levels: cost of tuition and academic rigor. Each of these was weighted at 35 percent in the ranking calculation, with data drawn from the National Center on Education Statistics and U.S. News & World Report, respectively.
The ranking also included three other criteria, each weighted at 10 percent: acceptance rate, strength of the engineering program and on-campus crime. According to the report, a lower acceptance rate correlates to a more competitive student body. The authors also said science and engineering students tend to have heavier workloads — and more stress — than their peers.
While Stanford scored well on crime, it had poor scores in all of the other four categories.
Given these metrics, it is not surprising that the list closely mirrored the U.S. News rankings for top universities, with Columbia, M.I.T., Pennsylvania and Harvard rounded out the top five. The next California school on the list was Caltech in ninth place.
Simon Wong, a Stanford electrical engineering professor, was skeptical about Stanford’s position ahead of other institutions. He believes students at UC-Berkeley and M.I.T. are more stressed than students at Stanford due to M.I.T.’s greater competitiveness and the bigger size of Cal’s school.
“We have fewer students than Cal or M.I.T.,” he said. “Having more students leads to more stress … I don’t think this study was very scientific. They are going off of implied stress.”
Anecdotal evidence also failed to lend credence to the report’s view for some students.
“Stanford is really good with financial aid,” said Jaqi Pok ‘13. “I feel like people aren’t really stressed out too much about finances.”
Though cost appears to have a much lower impact than assumed by the researchers, academic pressures do certainly add up.
“You don’t come to Stanford if you don’t thrive on academic pressure,” said Hannah Varnell ’13. “Not stress, but pressure.”
Aside from taking issue with the report’s methodology, Thomas Lee, a professor in electrical engineering, also questioned the entire idea of “stress.”
“There are so many dimensions to stress that, without a working definition for it, it’s hard to evaluate,” he said. “They try to come up with a single number, because we like to reduce dimensionality to a single value and that’s one.”
Indeed, though the article is titled “The 50 Most Stressful Colleges,” it does state that it is impossible to quantify stress; rather, the presence of a “stressful environment” is highlighted.
Lee did agree that engineering students tend to have more academic pressure on them than humanities or social science students. However, he did not concede this workload directly leads to increased psychological stress.
“If you have a lot of quantitative sciences, that’s probably going to put a little more stress in some sense,” he said. “But does that mean that the students are emotionally damaged in some way? That seems to be the implied message here, and I don’t think that’s true.”
Deniz Kahramaner ’12, a computer science and electrical engineering double major, agreed with the multidimensional quality of stress. He also emphasized the presence of numerous stress-relieving resources on campus, and the ability of students to balance academics with other activities.
“The term ‘stress’ is kind of over-generalized,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’re the most stressful college, mainly because of our resources. We have CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services] and The Bridge, so I feel like those things help a lot with not getting stressed and taking care of balancing your academic life and your personal life.”