As the race to college has become increasingly competitive, many parents and educators try to find ways to give their children the advantage when it comes time to apply. Some have decided the earlier college preparations begin, the greater chance for admission. For now, it seems there is no limit to how early this prep may begin; schools and parents may initiate programs beginning even in kindergarten.
The New York Times published an article last month describing an elementary school’s college program, one geared toward providing children as young as 5 with the idea that higher education is feasible. Different schools offer different programs, from creative workshops to college tours. In some classes, students cut out their chosen university’s mascot from brightly-colored construction paper; in others, the children simulate the application process by ticking off boxes with markers. Many parents have embraced the programs for giving their child a head-start on the process.
These programs seek to replace the often abstract, inaccurate notions of students with a more realistic and concrete perception. In towns where barely 19% of the adults hold college degrees, it’s easy to see that these motivating curricula may be appropriate. For students who have never seen a connection between their middle school and high school courses, the programs may indeed prove beneficial.
However there are several key factors that undermine these seemingly innocent programs.
Many of these programs encourage their students to approach college as the crucial step in seeking a job later on. While most Americans would concede that a degree does open a variety of career opportunities, there is no direct guarantee of a job for a college-educated individual. Yet according to one kindergartener, college is “somewhere you go to get your career.”
Furthermore, those who have already decided on a specific school, major, and career may be limiting their perspectives by choosing a path that might be completely different in ten years. Most 18 year olds struggle to make such a decision; how can one expect a 5 year old to?
This mentality reduces college to a checklist approach, rather than portray it as the wealth of information and education it should be.
Finally, beginning college preparation at five years old inevitably leads to increased stress and peer competition. Whether it is the mother who enrolls their first grader in a language intensive course or the casual conversation about SAT scores at an elementary school, premature college prep is equivalent to premature pressure and a potential for a decline in mental and emotional health.
The seven year old who proudly drew the Duke mascot on his paper crown may be perpetuating a certain correlation between the school name and his personal identity, one more often seen on high school campuses. And we know how well that goes with high schoolers.
There’s nothing wrong with dreaming and aspiring for a certain school at any age. But there is something crucially flawed in the reason why the school is sought.
We can look at the several schools scattered throughout the US that have brought their elementary and middle school students to nearby college campuses to provide a concrete glimpse at the life on campus. As one would expect, the children were drawn to the snack bars and dorm beds, and exclaimed at the similarities to a year-long slumber party. It would be unfair and unrealistic to ask these students to grasp the greater picture of college as a place for education.
As a result, it seems illogical that students choose universities as their dream colleges using such random or compulsive criteria, when they do not even have an understanding of the college in the first place. If he really wants to go to Duke because there was nearby fast food, does he really want to go?
While elementary school programs may represent the extreme end of the spectrum, not too far off is the pressure often placed on freshmen and sophomores.
The local Almanac News has a blog dedicated to “Thinking About College,” a platform established to give advice to students and parents alike. Earlier this year, blog author John Raftrey published a piece titled, “What Freshmen Should be Thinking About College.” In the article, Raftrey delineates two distinct paths to college, one deemed “the harder way to the highly selective colleges,” the other “the easier way to everywhere else.” Apparently, if a freshman is a semester into high school and “not naturally among the top 20% GPA’s, [he/she] should embrace [his/her] high school experience” because “their college choice is basically out of their hands.”
The post suffers from both a limited perspective that fails to mention community college, gap year, study abroad, and vocational studies, and a call to prematurely pressure freshmen. Raftrey highlights the need for thirteen year olds to evaluate their natural skills in relation to their peers as they determine just much they are going to strain themselves the next four years.
Beginning the college process makes sense junior and senior years, but to start the conversation freshman year is generally premature and may only yield additional stress. The best help one can give is to make sure students are constantly reevaluating and asking themselves why they are pursuing their current activities, and then giving support following their decisions.
The biggest mistake counselors, parents, and students make is in gearing the entire high school experience toward college. To place high school solely in the context of college is to fall prey to the college checklist approach, to the highly competitive atmosphere that in the most extreme case, has even led to depression and suicide.
Students feel obliged to make decisions about their classes and hobbies in the interest of what they think colleges ‘want.’ This in turn leads to comparisons between peers and the level of competition and pressure only increases from there.
Whether a student is seven or thirteen, their education should not be determined by pressure to get into college. These expectations often come at the expense of mental and emotional health, spurred on by competition between students. Until junior and senior years, students ought to be encouraged only to the extent that they pursue genuine interests and learn as much as they can while the resources are available.
These preparatory systems have the capacity to greatly increase stress levels and decrease emotional and mental health.
Do we really want to create a society of prematurely burdened children?
This article is part of a three-part series covering the effects of academic pressure on student anxiety. Click here to be redirected to the cover page.