The crazed pursuit of college admissions helps no one thrive. And while the Varsity Blues admissions scandal shines a light on families that break the rules, it’s time to consider the unhappiness of families that play by them. While competition for seats may be inevitable, students scramble to do ever more to get into college—and give away more of their childhood to do so. This competition might seem a problem only for middle class and wealthy families. But students of modest means suffer most when applying to college becomes an endless list of tasks requiring time and other resources.
As the CEO of the College Board, I see this arms race up close. We administer the SAT, a test that helps admissions officers assess the reading, writing, and math skills of students across the country and around the world. We also administer the Advanced Placement program, which helps students earn credit for college-level work they do while in high school. We know these tools to be useful, but we also see how they can contribute to the arms race. The College Board can and will do more to limit the excesses—more on that below—but there is more at stake than which tests kids take or don’t take.
The statistic that should worry us most is this one: According to a 2014 study by Gallup and Purdue University, only 3 percent of students have the kind of transformative experience in college that fosters personal success and happiness. Three percent. Even as the pressure of college admissions haunts students throughout their adolescence, whispering premature anxiety into questions of what to learn and how to spend time, the admissions process as we know it often misses the heart of the matter: What kind of education is really worth investing in? What is it that students should be doing, not just to get into college, but to succeed there and live a good life after they graduate?