Are “Top” Colleges the Best Preparation for Life?

A recent article I read about a child who was devastated about being rejected by Harvard struck a nerve with me. Despite the fact that only about 10% of students who apply to Ivy League schools are admitted (and many of those rejected do meet the qualifications), this student believed that there were no other options. In fact, his father said it was “the only good school.” I believe that most people see the folly in that line of thought, but this pervasive thought, that only certain schools, (those rated the “top” colleges), are acceptable, needs to be addressed.

I see this story as a wake up call. We can and should be doing more to help our children move into adulthood. They will not always get the brass ring. Not everyone who is deserving gets the prize. And that is okay. Being accepted into what you consider to be your dream school at age 18 is not necessary to be successful in life. The “brand” name schools are good ones, but that doesn’t make the less known ones “bad.” College rankings should be used as a guide. Depending on the source and the criteria, different schools end up at the top. If you are willing to work hard, you can get a good education, even if you are not at a “prestigious” school.

I don’t believe in the notion that some schools are inherently better than others. I do think however, that some schools are better for certain students than others. There are a lot of factors to consider: size, location, price, student/faculty ratio, education and experience of faculty and more. Any specific quality can be a plus or a minus, depending on the needs of the student. There is also the fact that not all children develop at the same rate and some students don’t hit their stride until their late teens, which will rule out the “top” colleges for them. Some of these students may actually end up with more successful careers than those in the top ten percent of the graduating class. What is comes down to is this: you get out of it what you put in.

Suicide and stress levels in college age students keep making the news. In the US, we appear to have a mental health epidemic, especially among our brightest students. How did this happen? How can we reverse this trend?

My own children span ten years and I have seen a dramatic difference in the general attitude about higher education and a corresponding spike in stress and anxiety level. My oldest and youngest are similar in their drive and ambition. Both were part of a crowd of high achievers. Both have friends who applied to and were accepted by Ivy League schools. All of these children are obviously intelligent and accomplished, but the older group of students was much more relaxed about the entire application process. Over the years I have seen more and more anxiety among teenagers as a whole as college acceptance letters roll in, with an overwhelming “need” to get into the “good” schools way out of proportion with the needs of real life.

With my oldest, little was said about the application process. Students simply got it done and went on with their very busy lives until the letters started coming in. A few worked on applications over the summer, but most completed them just before the deadlines. Maybe the fact that Facebook only existed for those who already had a college email helped, but there was little fanfare about these acceptances. Yes, there was nervous anticipation on the day acceptances were provided online (for the few colleges that did this) or when one heard that a certain college’s letters were arriving in homes, but only one’s close friends generally heard about the results until Student Decision day came along in the spring.

It was a completely different story for my youngest. Her classmates talked about college applications during junior year. Social events became SAT prep sessions. Essays were written over the summer before senior year (or maybe even during junior year). Applications were in well before the deadlines (even before senior year started). And then they waited, and stressed. I doubt that their parents appreciated it, but my daughter’s friends commented on my lack of pressure throughout the process. Most colleges we visited said they wouldn’t look at a single application before the deadline. I didn’t advocate waiting until the last minute, but saw no reason to cause any more stress than existed in the day-to-day schedule of the rigorous course load my child had chosen. I knew that the applications would be completed on time, and besides, it wasn’t my responsibility; it was hers.

A Generational Shift

Something changed in society during the years in between. My children attended the same schools, with many of the same teachers. If I had to say what I noticed most, it was the expectations, both from the parents and the school. I remember sitting at a meeting many years ago where a parent requested that the school district institute a policy of giving homework over the summer to help alleviate the need for re-teaching in the fall. Mine and a few other voices rejected that idea, insisting that such breaks were crucial for recharging and spending family time. But there was a quiet push, an undercurrent that drove everyone to expect more.

As my youngest was getting ready to start high school, I noted a concern among the parents about college preparedness. There was a drive to push our children, to choose a challenging course schedule, to add AP courses; there was a focus on post-secondary education and careers that was absent just ten years before, and it was present as these children were ENTERING high school. The earlier group of parents seemed content to let children find their way. This second group seemed very much focused on ushering our children through the process and into young adulthood.

I have come to the conclusion through my completely unscientific observations that this is something that we have created ourselves. Parents and teachers alike are piling expectations on teenagers and this is creating a stressed-out generation of learners. It is time for teachers to stop reminding students each and every day of their junior year that it is “the most important” year of their educational lives. Yes, teenagers need occasional reminding, and anyone who has parented one knows that they rarely hear anything the first time you say it, but enough already! Parents have to back off as well and focus on their children doing their best, not on getting the highest possible grade.

I worked in a high school as a paraprofessional for several years, mostly with honors students in an English class. Without fail, when they had papers returned, about half the class immediately pulled out calculators to determine their updated grade average. At a time when they should have been looking at their writing, evaluating what they had done well and what they needed to work on, all they cared about was the grade! Of course this pressure came from outside, whether from their parents, their teachers or society. My job was to read and grade student essays, and one in particular sticks in my mind. One student wrote about bringing home a writing assignment, with a grade of 89, which was a good grade for this student. The parent’s response, “Why didn’t you get an A?” What was a proud moment for this student quickly turned into disappointment at failing a parent’s expectations.

Parents need to know that with writing in particular, there are no perfect papers. You are not likely to see a 100% grade on an essay. Why? Because there is always room for improvement. Perfection is a goal that cannot be achieved in writing. The grammar may all be right, but there is always some way to improve on how you say something. Why is this important? Because in many classes, students are graded on what they know based on how well they express their knowledge. In writing.

The media has added fuel by focusing on how the U.S. lags behind other countries in some area of education. Since we cannot be second to anyone, this has generally resulted in increased efforts to teach skills that we are behind in, often to the detriment of those in which we are doing well.

The government has made a step in the right direction in reducing the frequency of testing. Here too, teachers have been forced to contribute to the instability of children’s mental health. With their jobs on the line if students don’t test well, they have stressed the importance of these standardized tests, causing even children who test well to have physical symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches at test times.

Parents recognize the importance of grades, since that is how students get into the “better” colleges. Every parent wants the best for their child and it is natural to want better for your child. Sometimes this results in parents getting overly involved, sometimes to the point of completing assignments and even college applications for their children. With many more students are applying to colleges today than did 30 or even 10 years ago, the competition is greater. As parents, we tell our children to reach for the sky. We also need to teach them how to cope when the sky is too high, this time. Being a teenager is hard, I think more so today than when I was there. I think it is our job as parents to prepare our kids to handle things without us.

When I get into a conversation on this topic, I am often posed a question like this one: “Given the same level of experience, which neurosurgeon would you want cutting into your brain, one from an Ivy League school or one from a state school?” I am not convinced that a more expensive or more prestigious school automatically makes one more skilled. Personally, I would want the doctor who sees me as a person, one who knows something about me and my life, who practices medicine due to a desire to help people, not one who sees all patients as a number, a notch on the belt.

These interpersonal skills are not taught in college. It is true that some are picked up along the way, as a side effect of living with a large population, but most of these have to come with the student. These are the things as parents we can foster: patience, a sense of empathy, how to listen and how to treat others with respect and compassion.

I am proud of my children, for their accomplishments, but more importantly for the people they are. They are the kind of people I would want to work for and with, the kind of people I can trust to make sound decisions about my future, the kind of people I would choose to spend time with. These are the things that matter, not what name is at the top of your college degree (or if you even have a college degree for that matter).