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 percent of them attribute their stress to school (here). Anxiety, depression, 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 an 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 A's.”
- “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 A's 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.
Stacy Dale, a mathematician, and Alan Krueger, an economist, collaborated in two large-scale research studies (Dale & Kruger, 2002 & 2014) in which they effectively controlled for the background characteristics of students attending colleges that varied in selectivity (based on average SAT scores of the entering class). The first study was of students entering college in 1976, and the second was of those entering in 1989. Essentially, their question in both studies was this: If people are matched in socioeconomic background and pre-existing indices of their academic ability and motivation, will those who go to an elite college make more money later in life than those who go to a less elite one? The overall result was that the college attended made no difference. Other things being equal, attending an elite school resulted in no income advantage over attending a less elite school, neither in the short term nor in the long term.
There were, however, some interesting exceptions to this finding. For Black and Hispanic students, and for students whose parents had little or no higher education, attending an elite college did have a significant advantage. Perhaps for those students, attending an elite college helped by essentially boosting them into a higher perceived social class and providing valuable social connections, which boost was not needed by most white students of middle class or above. So, if you are Black or Hispanic or first-generation college, and you get accepted by Harvard or its ilk, you might want to go — especially if they give you a nice scholarship. But otherwise, there is apparently no financial advantage in choosing the elite school.
Well, income is one measure; how about other, maybe more meaningful, indices of success in life? A survey by the Pew Research Center (here), published in 2014, asked college graduates to rate their satisfaction with their family life, their current financial situation, and their current job. They compared these ratings for those who had attended public colleges versus private colleges and found no significant differences. This was even without controls for the background characteristics of the students. Those who attended the generally more expensive and prestigious private colleges were no more satisfied with their adult lives than were those who attended public colleges.
Another survey, of 30,000 college graduates by Gallup Poll and Purdue University (here), assessed the degree to which the graduates were, by their own reports, engaged at work (enthusiastic and committed to their work) and thriving in their personal lives. They found no significant relationships at all between these ratings and the type of college attended. Whether the college was public or private, large or small, highly selective or less selective made, on average, no difference on any of these measures. However, the experiences they reported having in college did make a difference. Regardless of what kind of college they attended, those who recalled a professor who cared about them as an individual and encouraged their aspirations, or who had a job or internship in college that allowed them to apply what they were learning, had significantly higher ratings of engagement and thriving after graduation than those who did not. According to this study, it matters not what type of college you go to, but it does matter what you do there.
So here’s news that might help teachers and parents — and therefore students — relax. At least in the United States, essentially anyone, regardless of grades and regardless of what sorts of extracurricular activities they have done or not done, can get into a college; and generally speaking, the colleges that are easiest to get into are the least expensive. And in terms of all the usual measures, the long-term result is that it doesn’t matter what college you go to. So, ease up. Reassure your kids rather than stress them. Tell them you don’t give a damn about what grades they get; it really doesn’t matter. But tell them that you do care about their happiness and their pursuit of meaning in life. For happiness and meaning, they may need to spend less time grubbing for grades and more time pursuing their own interests (see here). The best predictor by far of future happiness is present happiness.
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Dale, Stacy, and Alan Krueger. 2002. “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College: An Application of Selection on Observables and Unobservables.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 117(4):1491–528.
Dale, Stacy, and Alan Krueger. 2014. "Estimating the Effects of College Characteristics over the Career Using Administrative Earnings Data." Journal of Human Resources, Volume 49(2): 323-358.