Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Is it time to stand-down from the arms race that is college today?

Parents in the education arms race: stand down, for everyone's sake

Do I detect an air of exhaustion out there? This is the season of college applications and the "big wait" begins. This story is an old one by now, and I won't retread familiar ground of high anxiety, enormous pressure, and crushing disappointment at not getting into the "it" choice for college. I'll just say that this crazed rush, and the continued competitive rat race, has got to stop or not only will we witness a generation that collectively cracks under the pressure but we'll widen the already gaping inequality gap in this country.

The exhaustion is becoming evident. One mother confessed guiltily that she was relieved to walk in and find her teenager slacking off in front of the tv with a friend after school (The teens were quick to say that they were just taking a short break between assignments.)

The pressure doesn't end once the young person gets into college. A pre-med biology student works three jobs in the summer to pay for what she sees as "gilt-edged service learning," a requirement for getting ahead and getting noticed. "I'm actually working to pay for volunteering," she told Marc Bousquet at the Chronicle of Higher Education's "Brainstorm" blog. "It's definitely good experience and probably a fun trip. But the truth is you have to do it. Everyone does it now. ...If you're the one that doesn't, you're the one who's not getting in [to grad school]."

And we wonder why helicopter parents hover. They know the stakes. They've been part of this game for years now. But this pressure cooker is out of control. What we've created is not a rat race but an arms race. No one wants to stand down for fear of being obliterated. Parents put it all on the line to move to neighborhoods with better primary schools, leading many, as we now know, to overextend themselves on their mortgages. The financial strain is exacerbated when parents and their children reach for that elite college over the more affordable state universities. This is a key reason that families today are working longer hours, community more miles, and (until recently) saving less. Perhaps this is why, according to Pew surveys, the middle class is an increasingly anxious class.

The insidious thing about the education arms race is that it maybe be "smart for one, but dumb for all," to borrow a phrase from Robert Frank in his book, "Falling Behind." It may be smart for a person who gets wind of a bank failure to tell no one and quietly pull out his savings before others hear of it and make a run on the bank. But when the bank fails and the economy tanks, eliminating that person's 401k and his job, then who's smart now? The same applies for the college arms race. No one wants to risk the consequences of not staying in the game. The result: while parents can control how much they spend on college and the preparation it now takes to apply to that college, they cannot control how much other parents spend on their children's education. And so the demands just keep escalating. Until,...


What's happening beyond the pressure cooker is that we're--quite ironically in fact--creating a gaping divide between those who are able to keep up and those who aren't. We have essentially created a winner-take-all race because there is no viable alternative to a college degree today--at least not one that is visible and heralded as an equal option. The result is a society of extremes with no middle.

Because young people who are not college material or who have no interest in four more years of hitting the books do not see a viable alternative, they enroll in a four-year college-or a two-year program at a community college, retaking the courses they should have learned in high school. But they are quickly outstripped by the uber-prepared peers whose parents have spent countless hours and buckets of money shuttling them to test-prep classes, extracurriculars, and all those other boosts that exist out there today. The result is that this very large group of young people too often wanders, makes rookie mistakes that today come with more deadly consequences, and more often than not, drop out. More than 40% of incoming freshman will not graduate in six years. And then what? We have, in our boundless optimism and belief in the fundamental right of equal opportunity-in believing everyone should and can get a BA-inadvertently cut short the futures of too many young people.

"Over the years, the sense that everyone should go to college has escalated to such a level that it's taken as a given now," says one college administrator we interviewed for "Not Quite Adults." "Some students just aren't ready. Now it's sort of an expectation. Even if you're not ready. Most of them flounder and they may finish in something they didn't really care about, their GPA is low, and when they're done, they still don't know what they want to do." If they get done.

We are right to promote education for all. We are right to embrace the reality that young people today need more than a high school degree. But a winner-take-all mentality creates too many losers. By allowing alternative paths to shrivel, we have inadvertently contributed to the ever-widening inequality in this country.

So what do we do? First, we must transform our high schools and begin to provide the kinds of wrap-around supports to families that our best colleges provide. We must also transform them into places where children can learn the basics of a liberal arts curriculum that gives them the foundation of citizenship, the critical thinking skills to succeed in the workforce and give back to their communities, that gives them a base of knowledge that unites them in a common culture. We need a common curriculum and standards, such that a child in Alabama is judged on the same criteria as a child in Connecticut or China. With that we also need more accurate assessment tools that recognize the disadvantage that poverty and other hardships imposes. We need more engaging course work that recognizes the digital world young adults occupy. We need higher pay for teachers in order to attract talent. Teaching is not exempt from market forces after all. We need more counselors, period. If we can improve our postsecondary education, students can once again absorb the wisdom of Plato and the history of Europe and the basic physics of life, in high school, not in the first two years of a liberal arts program at university.

With a better foundation in the core knowledge of citizenship, young people who do not want to spend another four years hitting the books can be directed into a program that trains them for a job. Of the 30 jobs projected to grow at the fastest rate in the next decade, only seven require a BA. We must tell our students (and ourselves) that a technical certificate in a health field earns the same as those with a BA in a health-related field. As a recent Demos report, "Graduated Success," finds that eight years after graduating from high school, 43% of technical certificate holders earn a median annual salary that is higher than that earned by someone holding an associate's degree. Moreover, 27% earned more than those with a BA.

Critics argue that this message essentially redlines minority students into low-end jobs, since these students are most likely to be underprepared for college. That's a good point--if there's no viable alternative. But with some work, we can make alternative paths more visible to that student. The worry over "tracking" children into fixed lanes implies that one lane is inferior, and I would dare ask any electrician earning about $50,000 year who owns his own modest home and can take the kids to Disney World whether he or she feels inferior. While no one wants to stomp on the dreams of a qualified student, there is also nothing wrong with providing other options. The young adult can still opt to go to a four-year college if he or she desires, but if he or she doesn't, there is a clear path to work via other avenues.

For families whose children are in love with the idea of college: stand down. In the immortal words of George Jetson: Jane, Jane, get me off this crazy thing! It's time to get off that crazy treadmill.

A crack in the dike is beginning to appear. When asked in a recent Heartland Monitor Poll whether a four-year degree is a ticket to the middle class, only 46% of young people aged 18 to 29 with a bachelor's degree or in college said yes. The doubt about the value of education is beginning to appear. We can't retreat from education. We just have to retool it.

About the Author
Barbara Ray

Barbara Ray is the coauthor of Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood and Why It's Good for All of Us (Delacorte, Jan. 2011).