How Schools Can Rein in College Admission-Related Angst

Summer 2024

By John Gulla, Olaf Jorgenson

This article appeared as "Under Pressure" in the Summer 2024 issue of Independent School.

If there were an educational version of the Hippocratic Oath—do no harm—how many of us could say we’re faithful to it? 

Given the mental health crisis impacting kids and teens in the U.S. today, probably not many. K–16 educators and leaders—or at the very least their schools and systems along with parents, coaches, and others—have done (and are doing) harm to young people in our care. We have failed in maintaining our collective Hippocratic Oath.

To whatever set of causes we attribute the growing mental health crisis, the academic stress, sleep deprivation, and anxiety that characterize the hyper-competitive college-prep track compound the desperation, depression, and risk behaviors that are increasingly prevalent among young people in our schools. It’s tempting to blame higher education and college-prep high schools, parents, and even students themselves. Truth is, we’re all complicit, to a greater or lesser extent. 

Parents love their children. Teachers love their students. And yet in many of our schools, practices and systems have developed over time that have demonstrably harmed children. Why do we allow this to happen? What can we do about it? 

Why Are We Doing This?

Since the 1950s, teens have reported a gradual, steady increase in levels of stress and anxiety. Numerous studies have shown that smartphone and social media use starting in 2010 correlate to a sudden, steep rise in teenage depression, self-harm, and suicidality; concurrently, academic distress exacerbates teen mental health problems. 

In a March 2023 Work in Progress newsletter from The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes about how “a culture of obsessive student achievement and long schoolwork hours can make kids depressed” and is a “key driver of teen anxiety.” A 2019 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine added young people in “high-achieving schools” to its list of “at-risk” groups, and a variety of research suggests that the high-achieving young people in our schools who successfully matriculate to highly selective universities can be two to three times more anxious and depressed than the average college student.

In its March 2018 white paper, “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity,” Challenge Success reports that high school students say the heavy workload they face causes them the most stress; the second biggest stressor is college admission. The Challenge Success paper also examines the research about whether attending a selective college predicts important life outcomes and found no significant relationship between a school’s selectivity and student learning, future job satisfaction, or well-being. 

Clearly, educators and school leaders can’t mitigate all the harmful forces driving the adolescent well-being crisis, but we’ve known about the steep decline in student mental health for more than a decade. Yet in many of our schools, the adults responsible for young people in our care perpetuate unreasonable expectations, unnecessary levels of academic stress, and a relentless pursuit of college-prep outcomes that are truly only appropriate for a relatively small fraction of our students. And despite sincere gestures like wellness weeks, intermittent “homework vacations,” and adding counseling staff, we fail to address its root causes, which requires substantially more resolve and courage. 

When we really start to examine why we’re doing this to kids, the honest answers are painful to read and immensely difficult to overcome. But in the spirit of our obligation to do no harm, we must acknowledge that in our schools, many of us have enabled excessive academic demands that intensify the crisis because:

  • Our schools benefit from marketing our success at placing students in highly selective universities—as illustrated by the maps we post in our admission offices and high-traffic student hallways, showcasing the selective colleges to which our alumni matriculate, thus feeding the frenzy;
  • Colleges benefit from the demand generated by intentionally manufactured selectivity (e.g., the “highly rejective colleges”), fueled by rankings, artificial manipulation of college acceptance data, and the joint messaging from universities and our schools about the grand prize of attending the most selective institution possible; and
  • Parents in our schools benefit on several fronts when their children matriculate to elite colleges.

Are Our Students Loving Learning?

The single greatest, purest, and most powerful motivation to learn is a student’s desire to do so. It’s the lighting of the fire, not the filling of the pail, that matters. 

Imagine if you could wave a wand and your students arrived in class hungry to make sense of the power, elegance, and logic of mathematics; if they sought you out for suggestions for extra reading on the communication systems developed by the Incas; if they couldn’t get enough of Emily Dickinson. What a revelation! Content mastery has its place, skill development is critically important, but a desire to know is at the heart of what we do in schools. 

As with most things, Aristotle’s golden mean is a good guide here. Maximum mastery cannot be what William Deresiewicz described in Excellent Sheep about his Yale students who could flawlessly memorize 40 lines of text but offered very limited insights into the meaning of the words. Nor can it always be solely the “emergent curriculum.” We must be humble while we also concede that students sometimes require skillful teachers to plant seeds that germinate into a desire to know more.

What often does damage is an imbalance. We speed through the coverage of world history without lingering long enough to get to know a distant time. We gobble up one more play by Shakespeare knowing that the vast majority of the great works will never make it into our required syllabi. Every English teacher should have the opportunity to teach a work of poetry, drama, or fiction by an author that so moves them as a teacher that they have to hold in check their emotions when reading a passage to their students. 

So many mission statements speak to the school’s desire to create, cultivate, or inspire “a love of learning.” How many schools try to measure this? What is lasting? Would you prefer your child be admitted to a hyper-selective college or university or have a deep and genuine passion for a topic or field that is so alluring they can’t wait to dig more deeply? How many independent school parents say they want both? For some students this may be possible, but would parents—and do parents—sacrifice the latter for the former? 

Can We Redefine Success?

To the extent college prep schools exist to prepare young people to flourish academically in the universities they attend, independent schools can overwhelmingly claim “success.” We are very good at what we do. 

But given the prodigious investment (and also sacrifices) parents make to send their children to our schools—when we very skillfully market our success at sending graduates to highly selective colleges, setting the stage for the mythos spun by the universities themselves—it’s unsurprising that parents are swept into the whole “selective college or bust” mentality, particularly with their own sense of success as parents on the line.

How can we collectively redefine success? For one, we can start from the baseline of our educational Hippocratic Oath and consider the harm we’re causing many of the kids in our care. If we believe that ensuring the wellness of young people is one of our most fundamental responsibilities, then success begins with stripping away the unnecessary agents of harm for which we’re responsible.

To the extent parents prioritize their children’s achievements over their wellness, “success” can carry a heavy toll in addition to depression and self-harm in adolescence. As we’ve learned from well-known psychiatrist Ned Hallowell and others who’ve devoted their lives to kids’ well-being, when we condition children to believe that their self-worth depends on their next accomplishment, we condemn them to a lifetime of unfulfillment. That is not success.

What do our schools want for our students as we define our success (and theirs)? What do parents want? What does each institution of higher education want? What can make the confluence of these often conflicting goals especially insidious and a solution challenging is that it will require agreement among all constituents to shift our individual constructs and forge a collective new definition of success.

How Well Do We Differentiate, Really? 

Perhaps there’s some level of hypocrisy when we identify our schools as college preparatory and then decry the stress we place on students in their pursuit of demanding college-prep academics. 

But the problem isn’t the degree to which our programs are academically demanding; instead, it’s that many of us fail to authentically differentiate by student ability level. We mistakenly presume all young people in our schools can handle the same high level of demand and rigor required to reach the prize of selective college admission that we too often dangle in front of them and their parents. 

Yet as we reexamine root causes of unnecessary academic stress in our schools, let’s get away from the notion that “pressure cooker” expectations are necessarily bad for all young people. In fact, there are students in our schools who can and do manage these demands effectively, just as there are students who suffer from taking on too much in order to please their parents, compete with peers, and pursue unrealistic goals. The problem is that we allow ourselves to apply the same pressure-cooker expectations to those young people—albeit hardworking, determined, driven young people—who don’t have the capacity to do that level of work without it taking a serious toll on their own well-being. Some kids in our college-prep programs need more difficult demands with greater intensity, and others are damaged by them.

An athletic analogy can help illustrate this point. Children are generally introduced to sports like soccer, for example, through no-cut clubs or pickup games where the stakes are low and any skill level finds a place on the team. A subset of these soccer players competes for a place on club teams, and the best club players try out for travel ball. Those who play in high school strive to reach varsity and compete for state championships; among these athletes, and from the top club teams, about 1% will move on to play at Division 1 universities, and only about 0.6% of these very skilled D1 soccer players will eventually sign a professional contract.

How rational would it be for parents, soccer coaches, the American Youth Soccer Organization, Division 1 universities, and Major League Soccer to see an MLS contract as an attainable goal for all players with talent and determination? 

And how rational is it, then, by comparison, for us to drive all of the students in our college-prep programs toward expectations worthy of the Ivy League, which comprises just 0.4% of the nation’s undergraduates?

Truth is, the problem with soccer and the Ivies isn’t the steep goals themselves; some 68,000 young people in Ivy League schools rose to meet the challenge and secured their enrollment. The problem is that when we push all students into the same college-prep programs, with the same pedagogy and goals, we fail the great majority who suffer in their pursuit of expectations beyond their grasp. We fail our students when we don’t differentiate their experience in our schools while allowing their parents to push them toward the goal of elite college admission that is, and should be, beyond the reach of most students—just like their future in Major League Soccer.

Our task, then, is to properly differentiate. Between healthy and unhealthy rigor. Between healthy stress and unhealthy stress. What is rigorous and energizing for one student may be tortuous or even dangerous for another. How is it that parents and educators fail to see this in the students we’re serving? Why in college-prep schools do we insist on making kids into people they are not? 

There are some 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. It is entirely possible for our schools to be college-prep without being college-prep for just 10 or 20 universities. If we could summon the courage and sufficiently buttress our marketing and enrollment to truly differentiate instruction, and be clear with our constituents that not all students will or should go to just a handful of top colleges, we might find a way to accomplish our college preparatory missions while remaining humane places for all the students we serve. 

Of course, such a mindset shift would require a transformative reeducation of the adults responsible for the young people in our schools—and first we must all agree to do no harm.

How Can We Take Action?

One of the most immediate, effective shifts we can enact in our schools to support student wellness is to address what “rigor” means: How can teachers change their academic expectations in ways that will challenge students without burdening them with an unnecessary workload? 

Such a shift depends on more effectively and intentionally individualizing our expectations and differentiating instruction according to the needs and capacity of students, while being clear about realistic outcomes and expectations for parents. 

This is a significant challenge in our schools, although small steps can move us in this direction: adjusting class schedules to enable more time for homework, limiting the number of allowable daily tests and quizzes, embracing no assessments or due dates on Mondays and after holidays, reevaluating the role and value of AP, IB, and honors courses, and so on. Some schools have already taken these and other steps to balance their emphasis on student achievement with concern for student well-being. One day, perhaps we’ll see some sort of database of such initiatives to help schools undertake their own measures.

That said, none of our efforts will prevail unless we can enlist parents in this same embrace of balance and wellness for their kids. We need to start by designing and delivering thoughtful and intentional parent education that busts the myths that lead parents to drive their children toward unattainable college aspirations, provides data to ease their misperceptions about less-selective colleges, and helps them understand the serious impacts of the unnecessary stress that such unrealistic expectations—and a childhood focused on obsessive achievement—can have on their children. And we need to enlist the help of school leaders, college counselors, college and university leaders, and representatives from initiatives focused on student wellness like Making Caring Common and Challenge Success to deliver these messages. Maybe we could create a “College Myths and Misinformation” course and make it mandatory for parents and high school freshmen?

Simultaneously, we need to instill in our students a sense of responsibility for their own well-being. For example, sleep deprivation is a serious concern and a factor in declining adolescent mental health. Yet by their own admission, gaming and social media consume a disproportionate amount of what might otherwise be study time for many teenagers today. Teachers, counselors, deans of students, and parents need to unite to help students help themselves with time management and sound sleep habits. 

Like independent schools, many colleges and universities are actively working to address student well-being and to acknowledge higher education’s role in propagating the stress of high school college applicants. We applaud these efforts and further challenge them—especially the most exclusive colleges and universities—to identify their goals in chasing ever-increasing selectivity. Is it to reaffirm the superiority of a select set of parents, whose parenting abilities and obsession with achievement are manifest in the success of their children? Is it to build a network of high-achieving, high-net-worth alumni in whose orbit one’s prosperity is ensured? Is it to launch graduates into positions of greater responsibility and influence than might be possible from a less-selective institution? 

If college and university leaders are prepared to define their purpose in the context of achievement, status, and well-being; to act on the mental health struggles of their own students by extending and institutionalizing wellness initiatives; and to help us limit the stress our high schoolers endure by reenvisioning their recruitment and marketing practices, we are at the threshold of a powerful antidote to school-related adolescent mental illness.

At the same time, the teenage mental health epidemic can only be effectively countered if all of us who feed the crisis collaborate to undermine its impact on our children—and commit to do no harm.

Go Deeper

What does rigor mean—and look like in our schools? In “The Dark Side of Rigor,” an article in the Summer 2021 issue of Independent School magazine, Olaf Jorgenson and Percy L. Abram answer this question and highlight the schools working to redefine it and better support student well-being.

An Ongoing Conversation

In February, during Thrive 2024, the NAIS annual conference, the authors of this article, Olaf Jorgenson and John Gulla, along with Whitney Soule, dean of admission at the University of Pennsylvania; Rachel Skiffer, head of school at Head-Royce School (CA); and Craig Goebel of the Art & Science Group, presented “Not On Our Watch: Taking a Stand to Combat the Adolescent Mental Health Crisis,” a three-hour workshop exploring many of the same themes in this article. During the interactive session, the presenters probed deeper on many of these student mental health issues, collected strategies that schools are already employing to combat them, and solicited ideas for what schools could do in the future. To learn more about the insights they gathered in the session and how to collaborate and keep the work going, contact Jorgenson at [email protected].
John Gulla

John Gulla is executive director of the Edward E. Ford Foundation.

Olaf Jorgenson

Olaf Jorgenson is head of school at Almaden Country Day School in San Jose, California.