Sometimes we do the most harm when we try to do the most good. As Cornell grapples with how to adapt its academic procedures against the wide array of unique challenges posed by the current pandemic, the University administration has explored a variety of different ideas. Among them is the imposition of a strict credit cap for the upcoming semester in which no student would be able to take more than 18 credits. Such a cap was recommended on page 10 and elaborated on page 35 of the Committee on Teaching Reactivation Options Final Report, and rumors of its adoption by colleges throughout the university have recently spread throughout the student body, prompting some to even email their department heads in vain attempts at learning more information.
The CTRO report explains the reasoning behind such a suggested shift in academic policy is that it will “proactively eliminate the added stress of being enrolled in too many courses” amid the context of “courses being offered in multiple modalities, disruptions associated with quarantine/isolation, and the elimination of breaks in the academic calendar.” The policy would “be adopted across colleges to ensure equity” and exceptions would only be extended to “seniors who need additional credits to graduate.” While it is understandable that the university administration should consider countless different options to alleviate student stress given the profound challenges of the upcoming semester, there is no sugarcoating it — a strict 18 credit cap is a terrible idea which would not improve but, rather, profoundly damage student mental health for years to come.
Students do not take enormous course loads beyond 18 credits simply for the sake of doing so. They take those course loads because their academic plan requires them to. Students pursuing double majors, multiple minors, dual degrees or other multifaceted courses of study find themselves with no alternative to taking beyond 18 credits at least for several semesters in order to graduate on time with all of their requirements fulfilled. Moreover, a large number of students hope to graduate early for financial, personal or career reasons, and, to do so, they take larger course loads. As the report suggests, it is undeniable that these larger course loads yield a “mental health strain” due to the increased amount of work, but disallowing them for this upcoming semester will compound the problem down the road. The classes which that strict 18 credit cap prevents a student from enrolling in this semester will still need to be taken later for graduation.
You are not lowering course loads — you are creating an academic avalanche. The next semester that student will be forced to take 22 or 24 credits to catch up or maybe they will have to consistently take 20 credits each semester for the rest of their time at Cornell. Students trying to graduate a semester early may find themselves unable to do so and consequently, will be forced to undertake the burden of another semester of tuition which they had not planned to have to pay for. This strict cap is not going to improve mental health for students. It is going to create an unnecessary mental health crisis for students in these positions down the road.
The suggested policy likewise stands radically dissonant with the realities of campus life in the era of coronavirus. With student activities drastically limited and social events constrained due to necessary social distancing measures, many students genuinely want to focus on their coursework now more than ever before. Countless students reported that they found themselves feeling aimless after their classes ended this spring amid quarantine, as their coursework at least gave them something to do and a structure to their lives. We need academics now more than ever. Why would the solution be to limit student participation in academics to a greater degree than ever before? If a student wants to take a few extra courses because their academic plan requires them to do so or because they simply want to more fully occupy their time, then allowing them to will help their mental health, not worsen it.
A strict cap limit also just feels wrong at an ethical level given the context of the upcoming tuition increase. How can you justify raising tuition on students amidst a devastating recession while simultaneously decreasing their academic opportunities? The University has legitimate reasons for the tuition increase given that it had been planned long before the onset of the pandemic, Cornell is currently under an even greater financial strain, and online/hybrid teaching oftentimes is even more costly, but it feels wrong at a very basic, ethical level to demand that your students pay more while offering them less than ever before. We are already being asked to pay a bit more for a lesser experience due to the pandemic, but at least, there are financial pressures which legitimately explain the need to charge that much. Now you are asking us to pay more for even fewer classes?
The University is right to seek to address the mental health strain of students amidst academic and pandemic pressures, but there are far more effective methods to do so. An extended add/drop period coupled with the reimposition of the grading option utilized this past semester would ameliorate significant levels of academic stress. Even further, if Cornell is really serious about improving student mental health, then why not direct more resources to mental health care at Cornell Health? Students have long bemoaned the difficulty in getting appointments and the level of care they need, and that is not the fault of the individuals working tirelessly at Cornell Health — it is a product of Cornell Health not receiving the full scope of resources and financial support which would create a truly robust mental healthcare system on campus. If improving student mental health in this upcoming semester is a priority, then addressing the fact that students constantly voice that they feel the campus mental health system is inadequate is a better first step than drastically revamping academic policies on the fly.
I respect the intentions of the CTRO to support student mental health, but the recommended strict 18 credit cap is a colossal mistake which would prove to be a devastating blow to student mental health. The way to “help guard against the mental health strain associated with course overloads” is not to pretend that course overloads are just thoughtless student decisions which can be easily outlawed. The way to do that is to support students as they make their own choices on how they wish to pursue their academic career.
Andrew Lorenzen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this summer.