Eyes on the college prize
Arthur Levine sensed something was very, very wrong last spring when a devastated high school senior confided to him that she was a failure. She had "only" been admitted to the University of Chicago, Wesleyan, and Swarthmore.Skip to next paragraph
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These three schools rank among the best in the United States. But they are not HYP - shorthand in admissions circles for Harvard, Yale, Princeton - and HYP was the goal she and her parents had fixed on.
"This is so damaging for kids," says Dr. Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "What kind of world is it in which a child who achieves that kind of success feels like a failure?"
Unfortunately, some say, it's a world only too familiar to many young Americans today.
More and more, teachers, school administrators, and college counselors express concern about the fear and even desperation that have come to characterize the college-admissions process over the past decade.
"We've never seen this level of tension and competitiveness in US education before," says James Fraser, dean of Northeastern University's School of Education in Boston.
Some parents fret about college before their children are even out of diapers. Worries about admission to the "right" nursery school, an exhausting round of "enrichment" activities for young children and teens, and - in extreme cases - the expense of up to $30,000 for college-admissions counseling, are common features of middle- and upper-class suburbia across the US. Snobbishness about where a child goes to college is no longer largely confined to old-money East Coast families.
The tension is derived partly from numbers. There are simply more college applicants than ever. Statistically speaking, getting into a highly ranked college today is a longer shot than at any time in the past.
The booming economy in the 1990s left many middle-class families awash in disposable income. The kind of extra coaching, teaching, and talent-nurturing that were once assumed to be reserved for children of the wealthy has become accessible to a broader segment of the population.
More parents have grown accustomed to being able to offer their children the best of everything - and why would they lower their sights when it comes to college?
In response to this trend, some people have become sharply critical of parents, accusing them of seeing college as a commodity: Just as if they were shopping for a state-of-the-art home-entertainment center, they may not fully understand what all the special features are for, but they want to know what they're buying is considered the best.
But others take a more sympathetic view of a generation they say has good reason to feel confused. Parents are constantly being warned that much of American education is inadequate. At the same time, they frequently hear that a sharply honed set of intellectual skills will be the only hedge against a shifting job market.
In such a climate, it's perhaps not surprising that many long to see their children equipped with the best instruction possible.
Even those who understand the motives of hard-driven parents, though, worry about the toll it might be taking. Particularly alarming, some say, is that this competitive frenzy seems to be fueled by the hopes and fears of adults rather than the aims and ambitions of the young.
Educators and counselors point to some disturbing evidence:
• In the past five to eight years, stress levels of students in middle school and high school have markedly increased, says Mike Peraino, who teaches an antidrug program in the Hingham, Mass., public schools. "Their parents are pushing them harder, both academically and in sports, whether they're into it or not," Mr. Peraino says. When he asks students what is stressing them, many say they're worried about letting their parents down.
• Kathryn Jens, school psychologist for the Cherry Creek, Colo., school system, is no stranger to the effects of pressure. She looks around on her job and sees "teachers being stressed, kids being stressed, parents being stressed."