In reflecting on the last year and my blog posts so far, a fundamental question has emerged—why is higher education structured as a competition? I can already hear reflexive answers to this. There are limited spots to get into college so that naturally creates competition. When you graduate, there are even fewer spots in medical, law, and grad school or at any given company; students need to compete so we know who the “best” students are.

While these answers are oft-quoted, they don’t provide a comprehensive or fully accurate understanding of how institutions of higher education should operate.

Let’s take the example of competition for medical school. What makes a great medical student? Or, more importantly, what makes a great doctor? Right now, the admissions process uses grades as a proxy to determine which students are best suited to become doctors. However, grades alone cannot encompass the full story of a student’s potential. This ties back to an earlier blog post where I discuss how grades in our current system are not necessarily representative of student mastery and comprehension. In reality, how we distribute letter grades does not accurately indicate which students are most prepared for medical school. Thinking of grades as an absolute measure of excellence (and therefore an effective means of ranking students) isn’t entirely reliable.

Despite these limitations, student grades and GPAs are still weighted heavily in the selection process for medical school. By focusing the process on the competition for grades and test scores, we are focusing on competitiveness as a core competency—a characteristic that doesn’t seem necessary to be an excellent doctor. And this competitive, winner-take-all mentality is why many of the problematic institutional structures that I have discussed previously continue to persist today. 

As I have established in the past, the ultimate goal of undergraduate education is to recognize student strengths and design an equitable system that ensures student mastery of their chosen discipline. This indicates that education should be a cooperative effort rather than a competitive one. At this point, anyone who knows me knows that I’ll go to my standard example of team sports: soccer. So let’s talk about an orchestra instead! The main goal of an orchestra is to put on the best possible performance. This requires each individual musician to play their part well, but one musician’s success doesn’t mean that one of their peers plays their part worse. Instead, musicians can share their techniques and practice with each other, which ultimately benefits each individual musician as well as the overall group! While there are some competitive moments (e.g. auditions to join the orchestra or placements within a section), it is the ability to set aside the competition and focus on cooperation that makes an orchestra excellent. The same should hold true for undergraduate education. Despite some necessarily competitive elements, we should focus on the cooperative effort of learning.

What are some of the barriers to true cooperation? A major one is the relationship between the instructor and the student. In my post on authentic assessments, I point out how many of our current assessments pit students against each other. Rather than evaluating students on their ability to fulfill established criteria, students are assessed on how they perform relative to their peers. Furthermore, many instructors have grading policies in which only a certain number of students can get an A, a certain number can get Bs and Cs, and the rest must get Ds and Fs. This directly contradicts the reality of education, in which every student has the potential to master the course material and be well-prepared for further education or the job market. 

These elements not only negate the stated goals of our university system, but they also effectively create a years-long competition between our students where earning the highest grades means beating everyone else. And a particularly insidious aspect is that faculty become the judges that decide who wins and who loses instead of educators and mentors that can truly partner with the students on their journeys

In my opinion, the choice between competition and cooperation comes down to the difference between winning and success. Back in 2018, I gave a TEDx talk focused on defining the difference between these two terms. While I encourage you to give the video a watch, I’ll summarize the main points.

Fundamental to the concept of winning is the fact that there can only be one winner. In pursuit of winning, individuals are set against one another to determine who is the best. I’m not trying to say that wanting to win is bad. As a highly competitive person, I like winning, and the drive to be the best can be great motivation. But, I find that too often winning becomes our only measure of excellence, and this is particularly problematic when it comes to higher education.

In contrast, success is not focused on an individual’s performance in comparison with others. Success denotes an individual’s ability to achieve a goal. The key difference between winning and succeeding is that everyone can be successful. There is an unlimited amount of success out there because everyone has the ability to meet their goals. Critically, excellence is best defined in the context of clearly articulated goals, not simply being better than everyone else.

As faculty, we need to recognize that the way in which we define excellence often promotes a winning-focused mentality. For instance, say a first-year student ends up failing an introductory course. This failure is generally the result of a complex set of factors that create opportunities for learning and growth. Unfortunately, many of us are quick to write off the student as lazy, lacking ability, or being underprepared—their failure is seen as a loss.

But what if we focused less on the student’s grade and instead focused on the things they did accomplish during the process? By adopting a success-focused approach, we can recontextualize their “failure” as an important step in their journey to success. Instead of writing off the student, we can encourage them to look at their experience and determine what they did learn. While this may include course content, often the most valuable lessons are connected to skills like studying, time management, and stress management as well as insight into their personal passions and goals. We can help our students see the value of a “loss” and find ways that they can build it into success.

Adopting a success-focused approach in this context has an additional benefit in that it orients instructors to be empathetic to the personal challenges that our students face. For many of our students, transitioning to college life is extremely difficult, and it often takes time for them to adapt. Does this mean that these students are simply not cut out for college? Not at all. They just need patience and flexibility on our part to thrive. 

Collectively adopting a success-focused approach creates a university environment that promotes growth mindsets and inclusive excellence. This directly impacts our students and helps them become adaptable, flexible, and creative problem-solvers—characteristics that are valuable both academically and professionally.

Once we recognize the limitations of a winning-focused approach, it is easy to see why making the shift to a success-focused mentality is important for the higher education system. If we truly want to create institutions that celebrate diversity and eliminate unnecessary competition, changing our mindsets should be our first step.