Back Off: It Doesn’t Matter What College Your Kids Attend

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Attending an elite college provides no long-term advantage to most students.

By Peter Gray Ph.D. Freedom to Learn

It’s no secret that young people today are stressed. A poll by the American Psychological Association revealed that high school kids are the most stressed out people in America and 83% of them attribute their stress to school (here). Anxietydepression, and suicides among young people are now at record highs.  Even kids who would seem to have it made—who are bright and come from well-to-do families—are stressed.  In fact, they may be the most stressed. Just this week, the Boston Globe published an article about a rash of suicides occurring among kids in the twin, wealthy towns of Acton and Boxborough, just outside of Boston (here). This follows many similar articles about suicides among high-school kids in other wealthy areas where achievement pressures seem especially high.

Almost everything we are doing in relation to our schools seems to be in the direction of upping the pressure. Academically gifted kids for whom school should be a walk in the park are encouraged into “honors” and “advanced placement” classes and are made to feel that their life will be ruined if they don’t get all A’s in those classes. (In my opinion, they would be better off playing hooky and taking an actual, all-day walk in the park at least once a week.)  As illustration of the stress, here are quotes from four high school students or recent graduates who commented on one of my past essays:

  • “I’m a senior in high school, and from a young age I’ve always been taught that I won’t be able to go to college unless I have mostly As.”
  • “Anything less than an A was unacceptable, and it was ingrained in us early on by our parents that perfection was our only choice for success in this competitive world.”  
  • “They tell you that good grades are not enough, that getting all As is the bare minimum.  You need to be a member of a least two organizations, but being a member is not enough, you must be leadership.”  
  • “High school was all about feeling trapped. … The idea that it was all about grades and obeying the rules, irrespective of whether or not I actually learned anything, disgusted me.”

We have promulgated some terrible myths. The biggest is that we live in an incredibly competitive world and are all on the same track in some kind of race, somehow competing for the same thing. Nobody knows what that thing is, but somehow high grades and going to an expensive college are supposed to get us there. The truth is, the world is not that competitive. My observation is that people who know how to cooperate, to help others rather than worry excessively about their own achievement, are often the happiest and most successful, by any reasonable measure of success.

The more specific myth I want to take on now is that there is a great advantage in getting into an elite, expensive, hard-to-get-into college. The myth is fed by a failure on the part of people who should know better to distinguish between correlation and causation. Yes, going to a prestigious college correlates with getting a prestigious job and high income later on in life, but that doesn’t mean that going to the prestigious college is in any way the cause of such success (assuming for now that this is how you want to measure success). There are lots of differences, to begin with, between the typical student attending, say, Harvard or Stanford and the typical student attending, say, Framingham State. Among other things, the former come from much richer families and have higher levels of achievement motivation(along conventional lines of achievement) than the latter.  It is very well established that, regardless of what college one goes to, people who come from wealth tend to go on to wealth, and people who are highly motivated to achieve tend to achieve.

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