The Frenzied College Admission Race is Making Our Children Sick
March 15, 2019
Suniya S. Luthar
The news stories about parents bribing their children’s way into selective colleges is deeply unsettling on many levels, but there is—potentially—one small silver lining. These stories shine a light on what has become endemic among today’s affluent youth and their families: a single-minded, even frenzied drive to succeed in the college admission race. This pursuit of a narrow definition success is making our children sick.
In child development research, we have been watching this problem for many years. In 2009, child psychiatrists coined the term “affluenza” to refer to the costs, for children and their parents, of lifestyles excessively oriented to maximizing personal success.
The health consequences of this focus on success are real. Since the late 1990s, my colleagues and I have documented elevated rates of serious depression, anxiety, and substance abuse among teens at “high-achieving schools.” These are public and private schools with excellent test scores, rich extracurricular offerings, and students heading to the best colleges. These are schools that serve mostly well-educated, relatively affluent families.
We have learned, however, that it’s not necessarily family wealth, but rather the unfettered drive to succeed that seems to be at the heart of the high distress. It is living in a culture where there is inordinately high emphasis on personal achievement and status.
The pressures related to college admissions have ramped up considerably over the years as competition has grown. There are many more talented young people applying to the same number of highly sought-after spots, and too many youngsters live by the credo, “I can, therefore I must.” Kids feel compelled to take on one extra AP course, one more sport, one more round of tutoring for the SATs, simply because they can (their schools provide them, and parents can pay for them).
The problem is intensified when high-achieving schools overly focus on “just do more” messages for their students. In the rush to get those top-notch SAT scores and college acceptances, teachers, coaches, and administrators tend to want ever-more accolades. It is rare to have adult gatekeepers who deliberately stop talented but exhausted children from taking on one extra commitment, even though these children often show clear signs of fraying. Instead, the message most commonly conveyed to kids is, believe in yourself and your efforts, and keep at it. Persevere. Do more! Is it any wonder that rates of serious depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are on the rise among students aspiring to go to the most selective colleges?
There are some who talk of today’s young as being overprotected and lacking in perseverance. I believe, quite to the contrary, that in fact these kids are terribly overworked. There is little to no time for play, just for fun; even sports and dance become just a means to an end, with successes to be pursued with grim determination. By the end of high school, too many of our young people are exhausted. And too many have not formed healthy personal relationships, which is the most fundamental ingredient for resilience in the face of stress; they simply have not had the time to develop these.
At the end of the day, what does this frenzied pursuit accomplish for kids who do get into the most selective colleges? Increasingly, there are reports of serious mental health issues in some of our nation’s most prestigious universities and colleges. So it’s not as though kids who “win the prize” become happy; in fact, by all accounts, the distress levels remain as high, if not greater.
We could react to the recent news stories by saying this is the fault or problem of a small group of wealthy parents, but that is simply not true. This insane “college pressure” is in fact much more widespread; it is a problem that generalizes to all communities with mostly white-collar professionals. As a recent report in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology shows, increases in rates of serious depression among adolescents have been particularly pronounced in high income groups ($75,000 or more), with rates growing from 7.9 percent in 2010 to 14.1 percent in 2017; a relative change of 79 percent.
That this problem is reaching serious proportions is evident in a recent report on adolescent wellness from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Listed here were the top environments that compromise teens’ well-being. The first three, in order, were exposure to poverty, trauma, and discrimination; the fourth was exposure to high pressures to achieve, usually, though not always, seen in relatively affluent communities.
Addressing this epidemic will need collaborative efforts from all adults involved. Parents and educators must closely examine how intensely they prioritize academic and extracurricular excellence—and at what cost to students’ mental health. School communities need to come together to foster greater connectedness and less rank competitiveness among students. And universities must examine their admission criteria, ensuring greater transparency and fairness, reducing “legacy” admissions, for example, from wealthy donors, and considering lottery-based selections among equally qualified applicants.
About 20 years ago, the term “privileged but pressured” was tentatively suggested in child development circles in relation to family affluence. Today, the data clearly show that the problem of pressure is real, and it is in fact very serious. The well-being of a generation is at stake here. We adults must come together to do all we can, collaboratively, to re-examine the values and goals we hold up for our children.
Listen to a recent American Psychological Association podcast episode featuring Suniya S. Luthar talking about the college admission scandal and the pyschology of affluence.
Suniya S. Luthar
Suniya S. Luthar is cofounder and chief research officer at Authentic Connections and professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College.