It’s an understatement to say that admission to Stanford is competitive. The acceptance rate is less than 5%. But that college application stress caused by these admission requirements is harmful to students and society is less well known, even after all the good press Harvard University got for its report, Turning the Tide.
At Stanford University, Challenge Success has been trying for a decade to highlight the corrosive educational policies driven by college application requirements. They provide research and information to help parents and high schools alleviate college application stress.
But in spite of this research at their own institutions, Harvard and Stanford continue to use the same admission criteria. It follows that they hold the opinion that while these requirements may be harmful to most students, the elite students they admit to their own universities are up to the competition and experience no harmful effects. But is this true?
Are students at elite universities above others when it comes to coping with these academic performance pressures?
Based on work of Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford, students at Stanford seem to be experiencing the same difficulties coping as students at other, less selective, universities.
Are parents to blame for students difficulties?
After leaving her Dean of Students position, Lythcott-Haims wrote How to Raise an Adult:Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. How to Raise an Adult is on my reading list, but it hasn’t made it to the top yet. In part, that’s because through the subtitle and table of contents, she seems to lay the majority of the blame on over-parenting.
The chapter titles indicate that over-involved parents are to blame for creating difficulties such as “Our Kids Lack Basic Life Skills,” “They’re Becoming Study-Drug addicts,” and “Succumbing to the College Admissions Arms Race.”
That ignores the fact that it’s really hard to ask your child to help prepare supper and wash their own laundry when you know that, even if they don’t do those chores, they’ll still be up until 1 am doing homework. Are they supposed to stay up until 2 am so they can learn life skills? (We’ve tried to make our kids’ course loads easier. Read “When your teens act like teenagers.”)
Yes, helicopter parents are a problem. But we have pushed our kids into the deep end of the pool. And while they try to learn how to swim, schools are spraying them with a fire hose. Parents are their only lifeline.
Or are top university admission policies to blame for student difficulties?
The book focuses on helicopter parents, even though Lythcott-Haims has a later section in the book that asserts “The College Admission Process is Broken.”
Next, she created the podcast “Getting In.” As she described in the introduction, getting into college has morphed from challenging “to the academic version of the Hunger Games.”
I listened to the entire podcast about a year ago, and I found it very well done and informative. It was apparent that Lythcott-Haimes has seen first hand the damaging effect the current high school academic climate and college admissions process is having on students. That means she saw these effects at Stanford. At the same time, she was witnessing the effects of worrying about college applications on her own high school children.
She began the series with many of the ideas she highlights in her TED talk. Including that we need to quit focusing importance on getting into a few selective colleges.
However, toward the end of the podcast series it was evident that even Lythcott-Haims still struggles to overcome her bias, that there are a few elite universities that are much better than others. She can’t truly throw off the shackles of believing that getting into an elite university, like she attended, is important. (Lythcott-Haims has degrees from Stanford and Harvard.) Toward the end, much of the podcast focuses on helping students figure out how to navigate the admissions process so that they can get into an elite university.
Still, she is to be commended in her attempts. It just illustrates how ingrained our perceptions of the importance of an elite education are. It’s something I notice in other parents. And when I’m being honest, I recognize it in myself as well. I’m not above being impressed by a study that comes out of Harvard. Or a collection of research presented by a department of Stanford.
Has Stanford responded to the findings of its research and it’s Dean of Freshmen?
In spite of the observations of a former Dean of Freshmen Students, and the research in their own Graduate School of Education, Stanford is still selecting students by the same criteria.
Are student difficulties the same at other top universities?
As William Deresiewicz explains in Excellent Sheep, the Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life, this is also true at other top universities. He starts out by pointing out that the easy super-star student is a myth. He then goes on to illustrate the ways in which students at elite universities continue to suffer from the education misconceptions they suffer from in high school.
Both Stanford and Harvard’s Departments of Education have solid research that the current educational climate is harmful to both students and society. Supposedly we hold these experts in high regard. Access to these experts is why we want to attend these elite universities, right?
The experiences of Lythcott-Haims points to the fact that admission requirements are not just having a detrimental effect on students who don’t make it into these top universities. Students who attend these top universities, the one who can “make the grade” and “win the college arms race,” are still affected negatively.
It’s time elite universities start paying attention to their own elite experts and change their admission practices.