Photo by Kindel Media

March 30, 2023    AmericaEducation

Why Are the Stakes Higher for College Today?

Today is the so-called “Ivy Day”; all the Ivy League colleges send out their admissions decisions. My daughter’s high school advisor emailed to say, “Don’t compare yourself to others.” It must be her busiest day of the year in terms of managing her students emotionally.

Human societies have become progressively safer, and today, fearing for our physical safety is rare compared to, say, a thousand years ago. Many parents today recognize that they grew up in much more dangerous environments but were given more freedom. Ironically, it appears that we humans need to spend the same amount of energy worrying regardless of how safe the world becomes. Since we have fewer reasons to fear, we spend more time making ourselves more anxious.

All parents agree that the stakes are much higher now than when they applied for college, but nobody can explain why. I have a theory: It is, in fact, we, the parents, who are raising the stakes higher, not the students or colleges. It’s just like how we are raising our expectations for the safety of our kids.

When my daughter was a toddler, I read a parenting book recommending that we not react emotionally when our kids fall. Not all toddlers will cry from the pain, but if we parents react as if a snake had bitten them, they will feel scared from seeing our reactions and cry.

When my daughter first encountered a waterbug, my wife screamed, and she looked terrified even though it was already half dead. I wanted to test the theory in the book, so I walked up to the bug without reacting, picked it up by a hind leg, and pretended to tickle it. Sure enough, the fearful look on her face disappeared.

In other words, questions like “Are you OK? Does it hurt? Do you need a hug?” are leading questions that force your child to accept your interpretation of the event. She would then think, “I see. What just happened to me must have been horrific.”

I’ve also read an account of a woman visiting a social service for rape victims where the staff treated her as if what happened was the worst thing that could happen to anyone and that she would never recover from it fully. She resented that she was not allowed to process it on her terms. It was indeed a terrible experience for her, but it wasn’t the worst thing, and she felt she could get over it. Unfortunately, the staff denied her feelings.

We tend to assume that the same event should impact everyone the same, and because we don’t want to be seen as cowards, we have the incentive to make sure that nobody feels fine if we feel traumatized. In this way, we deprive our children of the opportunity to process their feelings in their own ways.

It’s not the end of the world if they don’t go to college, but with the way parents and teachers are acting today, high schoolers are scared of life without a college degree. If the parents attended elite colleges, the bar would be even higher; the prospect of not getting into an Ivy is scary. Even if you do not share this sentiment, it won’t matter because your child is surrounded by others who share the same fear. Your child will think you are out of touch with reality. But, looking back twenty years from now, it could be the worst or best thing that happened to them. As a supportive parent, you are supposed to affirm their feeling that the college admissions process is nightmarish and traumatic, but what if this “supportive” parenting is the very cause of their trauma?

What today’s kids feel when they are rejected from college is not “disappointment”; it is fear or panic. Disappointment comes from shattered hope or dream. Let’s say a student dreams of studying robotics at MIT and is a big fan of a particular professor there. If he receives a rejection letter, he will be “disappointed” but not scared. Many students feel scared of rejections because they do not see college as a place where they pursue their passions but as social status without which they cease to exist. Now, where did they get this idea from?

Most high school seniors are not worried sick about the learning opportunities they might miss in college. They fear being left out while their friends go to much better colleges. They don’t feel disappointed; they feel panicked. And, parents reinforce this notion by validating their panic, not realizing that the many years of their “support” contributed to it.

“Don’t compare yourself to others.” But, if college is social status, what else are they supposed to do with the results? If your child has his heart set on studying at a culinary school, he probably wouldn’t compare himself to others. He would just be excited by the prospect of learning how to cook like a chef. What all his friends are doing would be irrelevant to him. But most students are not thinking about what they will learn in college but what status they will gain. Status is meaningless if you do not compare with others.

Higher education today is not about the content but status, an existential one. And, this isn’t the fault of some invisible sinister forces; it’s our fault as parents. It’s how we collude with the predominant cultural narrative and talk to our kids. Teenagers may not care about what we think is cool, but they fear what we fear.

As kids, we were given the freedom to explore the world on our own, even though we didn’t have cell phones to use in case of emergency. Most of us turned out fine, but we are refusing to let go of our own kids. We hate feeling fearful and anxious, so we take away the freedom from our kids to manage our own feelings. Because we don’t want to be seen as selfish, we ensure other parents do the same. The inmates are running the prison.

We don’t want to worry whether our kids will be gainfully employed, so as a form of insurance, we want our kids to have college degrees as social status. In other words, our kids are competing for elite colleges, not for themselves but to manage our anxiety, unbeknownst to them.

Many colleges are closing because they cannot fill their seats, so if your child wants to go to college, he is guaranteed a seat somewhere. The perception of competitiveness is self-imposed. Whether he goes to this college or that college, or even if he didn’t go to college, you have no idea how it will impact his life. You only know his life will be different depending on his choice. Which path is better, you will never know.