I came to the University of Michigan understanding what it means “to grind.” Stuyvesant High School, my high school in New York City, was a notorious pressure cooker where, per The New York Times, “The social currency is academic achievement.” Students would brag about pulling all-nighters, there was constant analysis of everyone’s GPA and a joke among teachers was that the Stuyvesant cheer was, “What’d ya get?” after receiving exam results. In a poll by the school newspaper, over 80 percent of students reported having cheated at some point. However, students were explicit about their motivations for working.
Students worked hard so they could get the best grades, which would take them to the best colleges and subsequently to the best jobs. Though the culture induced by this mentality was toxic and dehumanizing, it was a logical mindset — especially for the 43 percent of Stuyvesant High School students classified as “economically disadvantaged.”
I was excited to leave the rat race. When I started at the University, I was amazed by how little my friends and I discussed grades — even when we were in the same class. I still do not know any of my friends’ GPAs. But that relief was short-lived. After almost two years here, I have noticed a closely related — but less logical — work ethic among many of my peers and myself similar to that which plagued my high school.
In this work ethic, instead of using academic achievement as social capital, we view effort as a value measure in and of itself. On the surface, it is good that we are placing value in the process, not the results; how we use our time says a lot about who we are. However, working just to show our peers and ourselves that we are working is emotionally self-serving — not logical.
It is worthwhile to think about why we are beholden to this illogical work ethic. I can think of a couple of reasons. The first is the increasing ubiquity of a college degree. According to government census data, for the first time, more than one-third of adult Americans have a bachelor’s degree. While going to college is more important than ever, going to simply go means less than it used to. Another factor is that college attendance is largely determined by family wealth. For wealthier students, there was never any doubt they would attend college, so they need ways to show they deserve this experience.
The second factor behind this work ethic is that, once in college, graduation is not seen as an achievement for most students. In the 2015-2016 academic year, the University had a 91 percent six-year graduation rate. When almost everyone graduates, whether or not a student graduates does not say much about how hard they worked in college, because it is a uniform goal that most attain. Consequently, graduation does little to differentiate students within college.
Third, even within college, particularly in LSA, grades seem to mean less than we think they do. Elite law and medical schools require strong college grades but, for most such schools, standardized test scores are more important. For individuals hoping to find work right out of college, finding data on how employers value college grades was difficult, but my understanding from my and my peers’ experiences is that employers care more about experience and skills. Furthermore, a literature review found that college grades aren’t a good predictor of college success. None of this takes into account how grade inflation is hurting the legitimacy of grades as a good measurement. The consequence is that within elite colleges and universities, students need new ways of differentiating themselves and attaining social currency because traditional academic metrics are not as valuable as they used to be. Without these more objective measures of success, we have turned to hard work as an end, not a mean.
The last key reason we have this mindset is guilt. We feel the guilt and privilege of going to an elite college because we know that such a small proportion of Americans get to have this remarkable experience. The college experience is expensive and open-ended, leading us to feel as though we need to maximize every second of our time here by filling it up with activities, meetings or classes.
We can see this mindset all around us. We burn ourselves out by overloading our schedules, we add double majors and minors so we can mention them in an icebreaker, and we brag to our friends about how late we were up at the UGLi. Working hard is important and essential, but working hard for the sake of working hard is toxic.
Our competitive, hard-working culture is difficult to fix because the factors that contribute to it are so positive. We don’t want to go back to a time when college was a club of wealthy white boys where admittance alone determines outcomes, because we know how much influence wealth has over college acceptances. We also don’t want to make it more difficult to graduate, because the students that graduate deserve to do so. And if grades had more meaning, it would be as if we were back in high school. But we need to examine the motivation behind our hard work, and ensure that it does not become our social currency, because hard work and busyness are not everything.
Solomon Medintz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.