Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Has High School Become College & College Become High School?

Do we expect too much from high schoolers and not enough from college students?

I wonder if high school has become college while college has become high school over recent years. What do I mean by that? Well high school seems to be pressure cookers of late. Students are expected to take many AP classes as early as their sophomore year (age 15 or so), excel in sports, music, and/or drama, take extensive standardized test prep training (for the PSAT, SAT, and ACT), do lots of community service, and oh by the way, start an orphanage in a 3rd world country to boot! Perhaps this is due to a combination or confluence of several factors that may include:

1. The unintended consequences of “No Child Left Behind” legislation in that schools administrators and teachers feel much more pressure to get students to perform well on standardized testing and focusing their teaching efforts to very particular tests (i.e., teaching to the test).

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2. The increased competition for college admission (after all, with a larger percentage of the populace attending college, more international students applying from overseas, and an increased population of now over 300 million Americans we still have about the same number of brick and mortar colleges in the United States that we had decades ago).

3. The influence of and pressure from a variety of cottage industries such as standardized testing prep companies and private college counselors.

4. Fear of parents that their child won’t be able to compete in a global economy without attending the very best schools and achieving the best grades.  Think of a lot of tiger moms on steroids!

My son is a high school junior at a large local and diverse public high school. From personal experience as well as being a practicing psychologist in the area I hear plenty of stories (including horror stories) of pressured and stressed out students burning the candle at both ends. In fact one local high pressure public high school has had 3 suicides recently. Frankly it seems ridiculous to me as both a parent of a teenager and as a clinical psychologist that young high school students would be taking so many high pressured AP classes at such young ages and routinely depriving themselves of sleep, relaxation, and opportunities for creativity and exploration.  And so why exactly is it that we expect young teens to be taking college level classes in high school in the first place?  What's the big rush? 

So, while high school has become college (after all, AP classes are supposed to be equivalent to college classes and students who take these courses, and their parents, expect to receive college credit for them), college has become high school!

As far as I can tell as a full time college professor for several decades (and again as a practicing psychologist) college students spend too much time drinking, socializing, and not taking their academic studies as seriously as perhaps they should or perhaps they did while they were in high school. Too often they have expectations that they should and will pass their classes with somewhat minimal exertion and that good grades (i.e., As and Bs) should be fairly easy to come by. Additionally, they more often need a detailed rubric to know exactly how to write a term paper or how to study for an exam.

Perhaps after working like a dog in high school to get into college they are tired and fried once they actually get to college. Sleep deprivation, socializing, and alcohol also may combine to keep many of them from the level of rigor they exerted in high school. Having helicopter parents may also contribute to an inability to best manage their college experience once they are away from home and thus away from regular parental influence.  

Of course I don't mean to overgeneralize here. I'm reflecting upon treads that are certainly not true for all high school and college students.  

When I ask my college students which experience has been more difficult and challenging, high school or college? They usually always say high school. Wow…has times changed!

I have no magic answers of course but I tend to think that we should let high school be high school and let college be college. Let students take college courses in college and high school courses in high school. Reduce the pressure in high school and increase it in college where perhaps it better belongs. 

So, what do you think?

 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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