Whitman students feel pressure to live up to ranking

Josh Goodman

Everyone’s seen the Princeton Review rankings proclaiming Whitman’s students among the nation’s happiest. In an environment full of young, like-minded, active and intelligent people, who wouldn’t feel satisfied?

Though Whitman students’ collective level of happiness is reportedly very high: first in the nation in 2007 according to the Princeton Review, although only 17th last year: some Whitties feel a social pressure to express contentment about their school.   While many students are indeed happy, in some cases their testimonies do not reflect their true level of satisfaction.

“We are the ‘happiest students,’ this is the ‘happiest time of our life,’ of course I feel pressure to be happy or at least appear happy,” said junior Sarah Deming.   “I feel like that is what the public perception is.”

Among first-years, the transition to college life may contribute to an inflated sense of wellbeing.

“First semester is a little overwhelming, so you tend to exaggerate how happy you are sometimes,” said first-year Brett Konen.

Lyman House Resident Director Ben Wu, at Whitman since fall 2004, believes that though Whitman is a generally happy place, students do not feel pressured by national rankings.

“I feel like, generally speaking…the expectation here is that people are going to talk about the highlights and the good things [of their lives],” he said. “Even before [the happiness ranking], I feel like it’s something that was always here, because we’ve been ranked pretty highly overall in terms of student happiness by various publications. In my opinion, [the ranking] didn’t change the campus culture.”

The effect of publications’ rankings of student happiness may be of limited importance because of their questionable research methods.

“As far as social science research goes, the Princeton Review isn’t methodologically the most sound [organization],” said Whitman Director of Institutional Research Neal Christopherson. “As far as how they collect information from students it’s not the most scientific methodology. You can kind of take it with a grain of salt. It’s out there for the prospective students.”

Though Whitman does not normally gauge student happiness, it does survey graduating seniors on their satisfaction with their Whitman experience.   In 2006, 13 out of 322 graduating seniors said they weren’t satisfied, while the other 96 percent said they were satisfied.   According to Christopherson, this is somewhat higher than most other liberal arts colleges.

In spite of the high rankings, Associate Dean of Students Barbara Maxwell acknowledged that some social pressure to be seen as happy may exist.  

“I do think most students are happy,” she said. “I also think every student goes through ups and downs, depending on what’s going on with them personally, or through   their family, or academically, and I think most of them are short-term things that will come around. But I do acknowledge that there are some students who are unhappy, and my guess is that there are some students who are unhappy that fake being happy.   And I guess they fake it so they don’t stand out, because no one wants to stand out as unhappy.”

Senior Kiki Brennan pointed out that even the happiest students will be sad at times.

“I can be sad about things in my life and still be really glad that I’m at Whitman, where I have good friends that I can talk to about it,” she said. “The ‘happiest students’ rating doesn’t mean that no one is ever sad, it just means that we are generally satisfied with all of the things we have available to us.”

Yet for others, ‘happiest students’ is an understatement.

“I’ve never had to exaggerate how much I love Whitman,” said junior Kelsi Evans. “Rather, I’ve never been able to express fully how much I appreciate this place.”

Next year’s Princeton Review rankings are likely to show a change in Whitman’s happiness ranking; they seem to every year.   But regardless, Whitman will remain a place where students go through the ups and downs of life.