Kids Are the Victims of the Elite-College Obsession

Too many families are focusing on college “prep,” molding the student to fit a school.

University of Southern California campus
Mike Blake / Reuters

Updated at 12:44 p.m. ET on March 13, 2019.

The actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are among 50 people—including 33 wealthy parents, college-prep executives, a college administrator, two ACT/SAT administrators, and nine college coaches—charged Tuesday in what Department of Justice officials called the largest college cheating scam it has ever prosecuted. The FBI alleged that parents spent up to $6.5 million to guarantee their children’s admission to elite universities by inflating entrance-exam scores and bribing college officials.

Loughlin and her husband allegedly paid “bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team—despite the fact that they did not participate in crew.” The FBI alleged, “In many instances, the students taking the exams were unaware that their parents had arranged for this cheating.”

It’s the extreme, illegal version of what parents often do, attempting to bend the college-admissions system to their will to ensure their children’s privilege, convinced that a college name will lead to “success.” Indeed, Loughlin’s husband emailed a cooperating witness that he wanted to “make sure we have a roadmap for success as it relates to [our daughter] and getting her into a school other than ASU!” Parents have told me over the years that they expend so much energy and so many resources on college admissions because they believe an elite school will make their kids happy or give them an edge in life. But the misleading focus on a “roadmap to success” not only isn’t a guarantee of either result—it’s also terrible for kids.

Ever since publishing a book called The Overachievers about the pressures on students to “succeed” in the college-admissions frenzy, I often receive emails from stressed-out teenagers. They describe an educational landscape in which they’re encouraged to prioritize who they are on paper over who they are at heart. One of the students I followed for the book posted this on his blog the night before his freshman year began at Harvard:

Weighted GPA: 4.83.  SAT: 1570, 1600. SAT II Physics: 790, 800. SAT II Writing: 800. SAT II Math IIC: 800. Number of APs Taken: 17. Number of 5’s received: 16. Number of Times I wish that my parents would see me as a person, not as a résumé: 4 years.

He took the SAT twice because his mother was horrified by the initial 1570 out of 1600. In the midst of this statistical success perceived as a statistical failure, utterly weighed down by the pressure to perform, he considered killing himself.

At a time when one in five college students reports having had suicidal thoughts over the past year, we must hammer home to families the message that tunnel-visioning toward selective schools is not only misguided, but dangerous. Last year, a California 16-year-old committed suicide because, at his competitive public high school, which emphasized attending elite colleges, “So much pressure is placed on the students to do well that I couldn’t do it anymore,” he wrote in a suicide note.

In 2018, Scott White, a New Jersey college counselor, posted an essay on a National Association for College Admission Counseling email list in which he said the college-admissions process “is the source of one of the most cruel, and truly unnecessary, abuses of our children.” A college counselor since 1981, he has “seen a remarkable increase in the number of kids who are just falling apart, checking out, harming themselves and medicating themselves. There are more suicide attempts, students cutting themselves, more hospitalizations, more cases of anorexia and bulimia, every year. And there is every sign that this will continue to rise, unabated, into the foreseeable future.”

Instead of focusing on a college “search” to find the schools that will best fit a student, too many families are focusing on college “prep,” molding the student to fit a school. This practice tells teenagers they aren’t good enough unless they get a certain acceptance letter, a harmful message that lingers long after the application process. And for what? Students aren’t automatically happier at selective schools. At Harvard, rates of attempted suicide are nearly twice the national rate for college students. Graduates of elite schools aren’t necessarily better off in the working world, either. In 2018, more CEOs of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies graduated from Texas A&M than Harvard.*

Yet so many families continue to have name-brand fever. Parents want the name of the college to reflect all the effort and hard work that they and their children put into the high-school years, and they want the name of their college to make up for the lack of sleep and other sacrifices they made along the way. But names don’t necessarily reflect substance. Names are empty. Consider this anecdote: In one survey, respondents listed Princeton as one of the top 10 law schools in the country. The problem? Princeton doesn’t have a law school.

Overachiever culture has done this to us. It has caused drastic changes in schools and homes, relentlessly prioritizing prestige, high-stakes testing, and accountability at the cost of families and schools. It’s a myth that going to a certain type of school is a “roadmap to success,” but parents desperately want to believe that by controlling the system, they can guarantee success for their children, even if it’s a narrow, superficial, winner-take-all definition of that word. Education has been eclipsed by marketing—on the part of both students and schools—and as one college dean of admissions told me, “It’s not simply marketing one for a position at the very difficult preschool, high school, college, and grad school, and for various employment opportunities. It comes down almost to marketing one’s soul, which gets to undermining the meaning of one’s entire life.”

Not to mention the destruction of one’s childhood. From standardized-test scores to the arms race of year-round youth sports, students are taught that their statistics matter more than their comfort, that their résumé matters more than their character. Students respond in kind. Nearly 90 percent of college students say they have cheated in school. An estimated 15 to 40 percent of high-school students have abused prescription drugs as study aids. As an Illinois high-school senior told me, many students view life as “a conveyor belt,” making monotonous scheduled stops “at high school, college, graduate school, a job, more jobs, some promotions, and then you die.”

Months after I finished writing The Overachievers, I again interviewed the students I followed, to get updates on their lives for my website. Here’s what one of them, then a college freshman, said when I asked him what he wished he could tell his high-school self: “I wish I had known that everything was going to be all right. Really, no matter where you go, or if you go, there are a million ways to succeed—and ‘succeed’ is sort of a buzzword, you don’t really know what it means. And whatever way you take to get there or try to get there, it doesn’t matter. There’s so much more to life than where you go for undergrad.”

Parents might tell themselves that they’re pushing so hard for the sake of their children. But whether they’re bribing officials, donating buildings to fancy colleges, or giving teenagers the Tiger Mom treatment, the children are the ones who suffer.

* This piece originally stated that twice as many CEOs of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies graduated from Texas A&M as Harvard. In fact, three graduated from Harvard and four from Texas A&M.