Our Cultural Obsession with College is Misguided and Dangerous
[Content note: youth suicide, mental illness]
One chilly morning in my Junior year of high school, a boy who sat a few desks behind me in my AP Calculus class came into school early, parked his car in the student lot, set up a video camera, recorded himself saying a few words, and shot himself in the head.
The following days saw the usual pattern associated with the premature death of any student: the official morning announcement, the outpouring of grief from students and faculty, the presence of grief counsellors on campus for those who needed to talk. In our Calculus class, the mood was bleak and subdued, our former classmate’s empty seat serving as a discomfiting reminder of what had transpired.
And then, as it inevitably does, high school life seemed to move on. The recent tragedy faded from conversation. Our Calculus teacher reshuffled our seating assignments, and the empty seat was filled. It had been too late in the year for our classmate to be memorialized in the yearbook; that June the yearbooks were issued with a loose photocopied page behind the back cover. Or at least I think they were–my insert seems to have disappeared at some point over the years. Or perhaps it was lost during the haphazard process of circulation and signing our yearbooks were subjected to in the last week of school.
Like that insert, my own memory of my classmate’s suicide somehow slipped away over the years. But as I was reading this month’s Atlantic cover story on high school suicides in Palo Alto, the students’ experiences kept ringing little bells in the back of my mind, drawing the past into the present like the smell of petites madeleines.
I’m old enough now to be able to say old-person things like “life was sure different back when I was a kid,” and to an extent it’s true. I remember having plenty of unsupervised play time with the neighbourhood kids. I didn’t have a cell phone until I was 20. I was among the last cohorts to finish secondary school before social media (for which I am grateful). I took the SAT when it was still out of 1600.
These differences aside, though, my high school was very much like the Palo Alto schools Rosin describes in her article. Or rather a part of it was. A public school with a small magnet program serving both affluent and not-so-affluent areas, it sometimes seemed a bit like two schools that happened to share a campus. And while there may have been a demographic element at play–it was from my classmates that I picked up my life-long habit of eating Cheetos with chopsticks–the oppressive Culture of Achievement that Rosin describes was certainly around back then. The college admissions rat race was definitely in full swing: anxieties abounded over weighted GPAs, committee-pleasing extracurriculars, and weekend SAT-prep.
From everywhere at once came the drumbeat of college, college, college. It was what all this work was for, it was the only path to success (just look at this income chart!), it was where late assignments like this won’t fly young man (how funny that one is in retrospect). College was sold to us with all the ardour and assurances of a patent medicine: just get there and you’re set! The answer to all life’s problems, in one little bottle.
The drumbeat certainly sounded loudest for those of us in the “advanced” courses, but everyone heard it. While the gold standard in those days in California tended to be admission to UCLA or Berkeley (or maybe Stanford) rather than the Ivies, one of the better CSUs was just down the street and probably got a third of our graduates each year.
We were all convinced our futures depended on going to college. How could anyone not be? We were as good as told our lives would be garbage without it, and not always in much more diplomatic terms.
The fetishization of higher education has increased dramatically in the last decades, to say nothing of the associated costs. As we so often hear, college is the new high school. More and more jobs are requiring a bachelor’s degree, some for no reason other than because the depressed labour market means they can. More students than ever are going to college, and more than ever are going for its perceived economic benefits. For-profit schools are, of course, eager to take advantage of students following the prevailing wisdom by bleeding them of their student loan money and casting them aside.
At the same time, the arms race for admission to élite schools–and the social status such admission confers–has gotten out of control. Pressures on students are immense: Karl Greenfeld couldn’t keep up with his thirteen-year-old daughter’s homework load; teachers are giving excessive homework loads to younger and younger students; students are experiencing extreme stress at record levels.
So, we have to ask, to what end do they suffer?
Research shows that nearly half of students don’t learn much at all in college, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the increasing trends toward adjunctification, giant lectures, online courses, and the ever-present scourge of grade inflation.
Data suggest that graduates of élite schools earn more money simply because élite schools are more selective: students with similar profiles who went to less prestigious institutions don’t earn any less than their Ivy-league peers.
Tuition and fees have outpaced inflation for decades, with the priciest now at $63k per annum. Even schools with the biggest endowments don’t provide enough aid to keep their graduates out of debt.
As it turns out, some students are also finding it difficult to pay back their loans after graduation </understatement>.
I have said before and I will say again: higher education is not for everyone. Not everyone requires it, not everyone is well suited to it, and not everyone is prepared for it–especially not most eighteen-year-olds.
People sometimes find this position to be troubling or even elitist: why should I want to deny anyone the opportunities that come along with a bachelor’s degree? But this is exactly the kind of thinking that causes the problem in the first place. Higher education, especially in the form of the traditional liberal education, is a wonderful, powerful thing. For engaged, motivated, intellectually curious students, it is life-changing in the most fundamental sense: enriching their very experience of being in the world and participating in society.
But higher education itself doesn’t create opportunity, financial or otherwise, except to the extent that society denies opportunities to those without it. In principle, there is nothing anyone learns in college that cannot be learned without attending college. And despite the fact that so much of the current Cult of College revolves around its necessity for getting a so-called good job, vanishingly few professions require knowledge even tangentially related to the kinds of things typically studied on university campuses (even in the oh-so-practical STEM fields).
The unfortunate result of our culture explicitly tying higher education to good jobs is that its value is collapsed to mere job-market signalling, and ironically the value of the signal decreases as ever more students attend. Not to mention the other problematic assumptions built into the idea of a good job: it devalues the kinds of work traditionally done by the wrong sort of people (i.e. the working class, immigrants, women), however necessary they might be for society to function.
And so we have a perfect storm of waste and frustration: masses of eighteen-year-olds are told they must go to college to get a good job, “waste” their time in massive lectures irrelevant to their interests (if they attend at all), and come out the other side with enormous debt and not-much-improved employment prospects (since college is the new high school). It’s no wonder they drink.
I never quite fit into the Culture of Achievement, not least because I was not an especially conscientious student. I was and continue to be allergic to busywork or anything that seems like a waste of time. Which is not to say it left me unscathed–I don’t know if that’s even possible. I certainly remember utterly losing it when I failed a minor test, and another time took a dispute with a teacher over a drastically lowered test grade (disproportionate punishment for forgetting our rarely used textbook) all the way to the principal. But in the grand scheme, I knew there were more important things in life than grades and college résumés. Because I was in the band.
At our school, the band was a big deal. We were big. We won awards. We practised a lot. Like Gunn in Palo Alto, our school had a zero period, but it was only for the band. On the field at 6:50 every morning, after school three days a week, football games on Fridays, all-day competitions on Saturdays. If you were in the band, there was no time for anything else or anyone else. We were, in a real sense, a third culture: separate from the two schools that seemed to share our campus, with members drawn from both. Some of us were taking AP classes, and some of us struggled to stay eligible to perform. We all learned the value of sacrifice and dedication for others who depended on us for something greater than ourselves.
I struggle to imagine a high school experience without being in band. I do know that without it, the rest simply wouldn’t have been enough: tests, homework, studying; working tirelessly for abstract symbols that do nothing but signify how hard you were willing to work for them. If they even do that. I think there are many students like me who need that experience of something greater, something important, something concrete to keep them grounded through the day-to-day grind of coursework, the trials of adolescence, and the anxieties of college admissions.
The take-away from Rosin’s article on the Palo Alto suicides seems to be that, while the precise reasons individual students commit suicide will always be at least partially shrouded in mystery, we must at the very least take steps to limit the risk factors we can identify. This includes, for at least part of the population, working to dismantle the Culture of Achievement and its pernicious effects on students’ agency and resilience. It also means turning down the constant cultural message insisting that getting into college–and especially an élite college–is the one and only path to a happy and successful life. So long as students internalize that message, they will always find it difficult to disassociate their performance on the academic treadmill from their own identity and self worth.
So how do we turn it down?
More than anything, I think we need to decouple the concepts of higher education and employment. Even as we trumpet the value of the liberal education, and even the added value humanities majors can bring to their work as good writers and critical thinkers, we need to discourage the whole culture of signalling that has grown up around college degrees and the practice of requiring them for even entry-level work.
Secondly, we need to stop devaluing trades, manual labour, care work, and other important jobs that don’t require bachelor’s degrees. Here in Canada, the wage gap between university and high school graduates is decreasing, thanks in part to higher minimum wages. Perhaps if more students thought they could rely on a living wage even without going to college, they wouldn’t feel like their whole future was on the line with every test.
Thirdly, I think we should encourage more young people to take time off before applying to college to experience the world in some form or another. Even a year or two can make a huge difference for many students, and in my experience more mature students often seem to be the ones getting the most out of their education.
Lastly, we could do more to help young people get involved in things they are passionate about. And not the kind or passion that they can write about in their college essays–the kind that makes them forget about their college essays. At least until they’re ready.
When my high school went charter, their first target was the music program. Band was simply too distracting for students who should be focused on their classes. After years of pressure, they finally forced the band director out of his job.
They have a college admission rate of 95%.
Featured image: Flickr user thetalesend.