Is the 'push' mentality warping higher ed?

Michael Newton ran the marathon.

Not the 26-mile kind, but the years-long race for admission to a big-name university. Working around the clock for top marks at a New York prep school, he also mentored local schoolchildren, met with a tutor to gear up for the SAT, and honed snappy essays for his college applications.

The long hours paid off. Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school that selects fewer than 1 in 4 applicants, admitted him in 2000. Mr. Newton became one of "the winners."

Typical of a new generation of pressed-for-success American kids, Newton did all the right things to win admission at the top. But that doesn't mean he endorses the process. On the contrary, he believes the cradle-to-high-school competition for admission to the Ivies threatens to ruin something he loves dearly - college-level learning.

"I played the game, and it worked out for me really well, but I feel grossed out by it," says Newton, now a junior majoring in government. "I think there's a real negative impact on college. Kids aren't as prepared for college as they could be, because they spent the last four years playing the admissions game. They might be able to write a mean admissions essay, but that's different from a 30-page research paper."

One thing Newton prides himself on is his integrity. He says he never participated in a high school activity just because it might look good on his college application.

But that motive is enticing to many, and the urge to mold themselves into perfect applicants can follow them into college, changing - some would say warping - their perspectives on education.

One of the first casualties is the love of learning, Newton and others say.

Students may simply see college as a time to accumulate credits and grades for graduate school or their future career, tossing aside a deeper exploration of subjects as inefficient.

Educators are also concerned that the pressure students feel from parents, peers, or themselves sometimes just keeps building until it undermines their mental health.

Gerald Smith, a professor and adviser at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., tells of a young man who scored a perfect 1600 on his SAT but lasted less than a year at the liberal-arts school: "Even though he made straight A's that first semester, he came to my office sobbing. He didn't know who he was, what he wanted to do, and was never taught to think outside the box."

Be well rounded - but also stand out in a crowd

Twenty years ago, students who tuned their young lives to a perfect pitch for admission to a Top 10 college were still an unusual breed. Not anymore. Harvard now sometimes turns away more valedictorians than it admits.

The competition intensified in the 1990s, driven in part by college marketing and the emergence of rankings such as those in US News & World Report. More parents had the money to sign up their kids for private schooling, tutors, and college consultants. With bulging 401(k) plans, they became more intent on "the best" and less deterred by $30,000 annual price tags.

That "Ivy League or bust" mind-set may be softening as the economy weakens, but you wouldn't know it from the continuing avalanche of applicants to the University of Pennsylvania. The admissions staff must scrutinize each applicant's file to distinguish the "average outstanding" student from the truly amazing.

"It is possible to detect when there is genuine passion," says Lee Stetson, dean of admissions. "When something seems out of place and the student's application is too glossy, it can yield the opposite of the intended effect."

Applicants' extracurricular activities help admissions committees determine who will contribute to a balanced freshman class. Shaping one's young life around the importance of these "currics," as students often call them, doesn't necessarily mean that a love of learning will die on the vine. But it can leave students questioning whether their motives were pure.

Take Sefako Ketosugbo. Like a lot of New York City area kids with professional parents, Ms. Ketosugbo began thinking about Harvard, Wellesley, and other prestigious colleges as early as grade school.

"My mother would say, 'You need to be well rounded' for college, and I thought of everything I could do to achieve that goal," Ketosugbo says. "I always felt like I was chiseling out a ball that was well rounded."

In fifth grade she took up the cello. In eighth grade she visited Harvard and took the PSAT. After ninth grade at an elite prep school, she took a summer Shakespeare course at Columbia University. She began volunteering at a homeless shelter for women.

Still, Ketosugbo was worried. "I was scared I wouldn't get into college.... I put the pressure on myself. I took the SAT three times."

In the efforts to package herself for college applications, she says, "I would wonder, 'Gee, am I letting my goals for college influence my decisions on extracurriculars too much? Am I applying to dance or a science program because I like it - or just because it will help me get into college?"

Today she's a sophomore majoring in economics and English at Wellesley, a prominent liberal-arts college for women near Boston.

Ketosugbo is enjoying her experience there, but she also sees some students placing a high value on packaging themselves for the future.

"The science majors just want to get into med school," she says. "Their goal isn't to enjoy the classes, just to get the best grades possible. Among the humanities majors, there's a little more love for what they're doing."

Some of the 'best and brightest' are boring

Motivations matter a great deal in learning at the college level, faculty say. It can mean the difference between superficial understanding and true intellectual depth, says Dr. Smith of the University of the South.

The irony, he says, is that the more students have focused on becoming the perfect college applicant, the less engaged they may be as college students.

"Their excitement about learning disappears, the magic - the marvelous powers of the human mind to explode with insight - just goes," he says. "I look for those with the capacity to play. Often it seems the best and brightest have been taught not to play. They don't take chances. Instead of really pushing us [faculty], they're boring us."

The University of the South often attracts top students who had hoped to go to Yale or Princeton. Many such students are wonderful, Smith says, but others are so "programmed" for success that it constricts their progress.

A student who came to his office recently was upset because she had received a B on an assignment. "She said it was the first B she ever got and she didn't know what she'd tell her mother. She was sobbing, saying, 'Just tell me what I have to do to make it an A.' It was one of the saddest things I'd ever heard - there was no spark in her to really learn."

Triple-majoring to market themselves

Many students have been under pressure to succeed for years, so there's "a cumulative effect," says Gregory Hall, an associate professor of psychology and student adviser at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.

"It's not unusual anymore to have even first-year students or sophomores suffering anxiety over what they're going to do once they graduate," Dr. Hall says. "When they get into college, everything they do is still geared toward success once they're out of college."

Many students arrive on campus with mental- or emotional-health problems, but even those who consider themselves well-adjusted can lose confidence during freshman year. Among about 3,600 freshmen at 50 four-year institutions, 44.9 percent rated their emotional health "above average" at the end of their first college year, down from 52.4 percent at the beginning of the year, according to a survey released this year by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles.

Hall suspects that students are putting undue pressure on themselves to pad credentials in order to appeal to employers or graduate schools, rather than enjoying the opportunity to explore a subject they love.

One sign of this may be the reported surge in double and triple majors at a number of schools. Stewart Cooper, director of counseling services and graduate psychology programs at Valparaiso University in Indiana, has seen more students stressed out over second or third majors.

"One driving force is anxiety," he says. "It's a tough job market and they want to get a leg up on the competition.... But it's tough for them to carry off. Sleep is disrupted and it becomes a problem."

Two years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge banned triple-major petitions. Other schools are reexamining their policies. Robyn Wright Dunbar, senior associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University, advocates against triple majors every chance she gets, calling it "a death wish" for superachievers intent not on learning, but mainly on marketing themselves after college.

Some students aren't so convinced that the drive to get into colleges is having a negative effect on undergraduates. Lisa Schneider, a senior at Yale University who has had two siblings before her go to Ivy League schools, agrees the pressure at the high school level is "out of control." But she says the impact on her and her classmates is fairly limited.

"I do have many friends who are applying to law school, even though they don't want to be lawyers," she says. "Still, if anyone in college is really worried about their future marketability, it's mostly in banking, Wall Street, law, or medicine."

Critics point to 'early decision'

To deflate the pressure so many high school students feel, some observers say colleges should make some changes themselves.

For one, they could step back from the "early decision" application process, as Yale and Stanford recently decided to do. Early decision typically requires a student to apply to just one college in the fall of senior year and commit to attending there if accepted. It's become ubiquitous at selective institutions partly because colleges' rankings include a calculation of their "yield" - the percentage of admitted students who decide to attend.

But this system, critics say, results in strain on students to cram more into their first three years of high school.

College consultants like James Heryer, based in Kansas City, says the schools are being selfish.

"All they're doing is getting X number of students to commit to them early," he says. "But that's not necessarily the best program for the students and their parents. And it cancels out any options for need- or merit-based scholarship offers by other institutions."

Harvard or bust?

Whatever the schools decide to do about the admissions process, the bottom line is that parents and students must dump their "Harvard-or-bust mentality," says Brendan Mernin, a master SAT test tutor for the Princeton Review in New York.

Families should adjust their goals and put more emphasis on choosing the right school in a less pressured way, he says.

"I tell kids [to] only apply where they will be happy," Mr. Mernin says. But he's skeptical about that attitude taking hold anytime soon.

"Look, if they think a brand on their kid's diploma will give their kid security, people have shown they will work very, very hard to provide that," Mernin says. "We all know you can get a world-class education at the University of Illinois, but none of my students wants to go there. None."

Newton, the Dartmouth student, thought it was odd when he arrived as a freshman that a number of his classmates felt disappointed to be there.

"I know it's crazy, but there is an attitude ... that if you don't go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, you're sunk," Newton says. "Some of [my classmates] still don't know how lucky they are to be here."

For Sefako Ketosugbo, on the other hand, being at Wellesley has meant a chance to emerge mentally from the pressure bubble.

School is plenty tough, she says, but now that she's a sophomore, her memories of constant prepping for the SAT are receding.

"I'm very grateful to be here," she says. "It's my dream."


A family looks back on the college-admissions whirlwind

Only in retrospect was James Price aware of the intense college-application process his daughter and her friends went through at their $13,000-a-year private high school.

"Rachel didn't talk much about it," says Mr. Price, a Kansas City attorney, "but I'm sure there was plenty of pressure from the school culture and peers that we didn't realize."

Now in her first year at Brown University in Providence, R.I., Rachel says she enjoyed the academic focus of the Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, Mo., but not the anxious atmosphere that built up as classmates vied for slots at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.

"It got so competitive and catty, really vicious," she says. "One girl saw me as this huge competition. She would send her friends to talk to me to check on my intentions and keep an eye on my extracurriculars and whether I had a leg up on her. It was insane."

Rachel estimates that about a third of her class went through the early-decision process, which allows students to choose one college to apply to before the general deadline and binds them to attend if they are accepted.

With anticipation at a peak, early-admission decisions arrived in January, greeted either by tears or squeals of joy. Some students were so devastated at being rejected or wait-listed that they left school for the day. And that still bothers Rachel's dad.

Rachel and her parents had decided together not to participate in early decision. They knew they were giving up a statistical edge in gaining admission to Rachel's selections - a litany of top names: Brown, Tufts, Washington University, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Middlebury, and Vassar. "We felt like there were any number of very fine educational institutions that would have been fine for Rachel, and I think that's the case with most students," Mr. Price says.

Rachel eventually received invitations from every school but one - Washington University in St. Louis, where she was placed on the waiting list.

Mr. Price admits that there's a little part of him that's proud Rachel is at Brown just because it's an Ivy League school. "It's just human nature," he says. "You do get wrapped up in [the competition]. It kind of feeds on itself. But everyone involved in the process should keep in mind that we're dealing with students between 14 and 18 years old. They're just teenagers."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.