In a recent article that deserves far more attention than it has received, Colleen Eren, a sociologist and director of William Patterson’s Criminology and Criminal Justice Program, argues that “colleges—and the law—are impairing student education and resilience through “too many accommodations.”
In her article, she tracks the startling increase in the number of students classified with “mental health issues (particularly anxiety or depression) and learning disorders or attention-deficit disorders, even when those conditions do not significantly impact a student’s life activities.” To take one example, in New York State the number of college students classified with a mental health disability jumped 53 percent between 2015 and 2022, while the number of disability staff rose from 1,775 to 4,200.
She concludes that the surge in classification “reflects recent changes to the ADA Amendments Act that expand the definition of what is a disability to the point of being meaningless—changes that have opened the door to accommodations that fundamentally change course structure, content and assessments.”
Contributing to the upsurge are several shifts in thinking and practice. Disabilities no longer need to be deemed chronic, nor do they need to severely restrict a student’s life; nor is independent professional documentation required.
Why should we be concerned? Professor Eren offers several reasons. The most important is this: Instead of providing students “with cognitive strategies, literacy tools or other support to succeed in class according to the intended standards,” campuses have created “a culture where easy outs are normalized, desired and socially contagious, under the unassailable shield of medicalization, and the understandable sympathy the term ‘disability’ conjures.”
There are other reasons for concern.
- Some required accommodations—for example, prohibiting an instructor from calling on a student in class without prior notification or waiving a requirement for an oral presentation—may conflict with an instructor’s sense of the essential skills that students are expected to master. In Eren’s words: Faculty must insist that accommodations “do not fundamentally alter the curriculum, standards or rigor.”
- Current practice may widen disparities rooted in class privilege. The expanded scope of the ADA amendments, Eren contends, “has backfired in its … stated goals [to], provide justice to poorer people in general.” “Neither compassionate nor progressive,” the legislation’s effect is to provide “significant opportunities to those with the means to secure more accommodations than those with fewer.”
It’s striking that among the highest rates of mental health accommodations are those found at the top liberal arts colleges. “27 percent of Amherst, 26 percent of Brown and 22 percent of Barnard students get accommodations,” over four times the rate at community colleges.
Let me be clear: Professor Eren in no way downplays the need for colleges to help students who struggle “with anxiety, depression, the inability to concentrate, difficulty with reading or fear of speaking in front of classmates.” Her concern is that colleges are using accommodations as a substitute for giving those students the tools they need to address challenges the face, for example by providing expanded access to learning disabilities specialists.
Let me shift gears and turn to a somewhat related subject: the high rates of anxiety, depression, and social isolation that many college students experience—and how campuses might respond.
Traditional student life is in free fall.
With commuting students now making up roughly 85 percent of the student population, fewer students take part in traditional student life: Varsity sports, or fan culture, Greek life, and even student clubs and organizations.
For the many students who enjoyed a residential (or near residential) college experience, extracurriculars were perhaps the most memorable part of college life. Working on the school newspaper, broadcasting on the college radio station, or, of course, playing intramural sports, were among college’s greatest pleasures. For many undergraduates, it was in activities like these that they acquired the leadership and teamwork skills and created the social networks that pay off later in life.
If we want a college to be more than credentialing, more than transactional and utilitarian, then it is essential that we provide a well-rounded experience.
What, then, can a campus do? Let me spell out a number of proven strategies:
- Establish special interest groups. In addition to creating pre-professional organizations, for example, pre-business, pre-law, pre-med, pre-nursing, pre-tech, set aside special spaces for commuters, first-generation college students, parents, veterans and other groups.
- Create cohort programs. Supplement existing honors and opportunity programs with cohorts in areas of high student interest: the arts, the humanities, pre-health, public policy, and tech, each with its own designated faculty lead and dedicated advising.
- Engage many more students in supervised research. My own campus engages over 1,000 freshmen in the College of Natural Sciences in a guided research experience each year. There are 35 research streams, each with three dozen students, in fields that include big data in behavioral neuroscience, biology, quantum computing and urban ecosystems. There is no reason why my own college, Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, couldn’t do something similar, with streams that might include archival research, ethnography, longitudinal studies, social network analysis, qualitative research, quantitative research and survey research.
- Encourage departments to establish dedicated outside-the-classroom programming for majors. At Yale, the Westerners, those who were rewriting the history of the American West, held weekly potlucks. At Houston, Phi Alpha Theta, too, held regular potlucks. Consider ways to make your department’s major more of a genuine community.
- Incentivize faculty to incorporate outside-the-classroom activities in their in-person, on-campus courses. Establish a dedicated student engagement fund to support activities that might include faculty-student lunches or field trips.
- Offer more classes that include team-based learning. Team-based learning can be a highly effective way to promote student engagement, collaboration and connection.
- Incentivize involvement in on-campus activities. Consider awarding a certificate, noted on the transcript, to those students who attend concerts, lectures, musical and theatrical performances, and other events.
- Encourage participation in wellness and physical activities, including intramural athletics. Create credit-bearing opportunities for students to engage in activities that promote physical health and mental well-being.
- Award course credit for community service. Establish formal ways for students to receive academic credit for service learning activities.
- Increase the number of on-campus jobs that have a mentoring component. In addition to providing a paycheck, on-campus jobs should offer work-related skills that can increase job-readiness. To that end, ensure that campus jobs include a professional development component. Encourage supervisors to engage in dialogue with student workers about transferable skills and how their specific campus unit functions and the challenges it faces.
A college education should do more than provide students with a credential. It should be developmental and transformative, too. Professor Eren quite rightly asks whether our campuses are giving the growing number of students with documented disabilities the skills and strategies needed to realize their full potential? We might also ask how commuter colleges and universities can provide off-campus students with a counterpart to the college experience that residential students take for granted.
In an important 2019 study, The Instrumental University, Ethan Schrum, an associate professor of history at Azusa Pacific University, reconstructs a pivotal shift that took place in American research universities between 1945 and 1970. University administrators, with encouragement from foundations, legislatures, corporations and the federal government, embraced the idea that one of their institutions’ primary functions should contribute to the nation’s defense, promote economic development and address the country’s social problems. The technocratic turn, Schrum shows, helped make applied research central to research universities’ mission, at the expense of undergraduate teaching—well before the emergence of the neoliberal university, an institution increasingly driven by market considerations.
I fear that our colleges and universities are becoming instrumental in a different sense. Rather than placing undergraduate education and well-rounded student development front and center, we are allowing student success—defined solely in terms of graduation rates—to trump a more robust vision of what a college education ought to be. That’s an education that is more purposeful and ambitious, that helps students grow across every vector: cognitively, emotionally, ethically, physically and interpersonally.