Imagine spending your entire childhood as a top performer in a subject. Each year in class you are seen by your peers as a resource and an expert. You consistently get top grades. You may even get awards and recognition. Anyone who has had this experience as a child knows that this becomes a part of your identity. It has a massive impact on our measurement of self-worth, on your future expectations and your future aspirations. You would think the students who perform at the highest level would excel regardless of their higher education institution. In fact, you might assume the better the quality of the institution, the more likely they are to succeed. If you look at the percentage of students that make it through to graduation, it is relatively consistent across institutions. This is because our perceived capabilities are RELATIVE, not ABSOLUTE.
Malcolm Gladwell points this out, in his book “David and Goliath” when comparing Hartwick (a middle tier University) and Harvard. The graduation rates, split by thirds, are almost identical between the two schools (only roughly 15% of Harvard’s bottom third make it to graduation), despite the differences in qualifications of the students. So, a student that would be in the bottom third at Harvard would do much better as the top 10% at a middle tier university.
The benefits extend beyond graduation rates. Students at the very top of their institutions are far more likely to get scholarships, they are often among the most sought-after candidates at career fairs, and generally get favorable treatment from professors (like research opportunities and on campus job recommendations). There is also a higher sense of self-worth that generally leads to more happiness and life satisfaction.
These findings also lead to another conclusion. Students at top tier institutions and very difficult majors that are performing in the bottom third (or bottom two thirds) of their class may really be highly capable and would perform at the top percentiles of their respective professions but are currently facing internal issues of self-worth and belonging. This is something professors should be increasingly sensitive to. How do you identify and support highly capable students that are at the bottom of a high competency, high intellect academic track? They are obviously among the brightest students in the institution but may be having emotional challenges as they struggle relative to their other high performing peers.
Parents want the best for their kids, professors want their students to succeed. Understanding the psychological and emotional struggles of students can help us reframe what success looks like, and the paths to achieve it.