Our obsession with elite colleges is making our kids feel worthless

Ivy League isn’t the only way.
Ivy League isn’t the only way.
Image: AP Photo/Elise Amendola
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In Palo Alto, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, our adolescents kill themselves at four to five times the national average. The majority of the children who have taken their own lives have put themselves in the path of the CalTrain whose tracks cut through the very center of town. But their deaths only temporarily halt our community’s forward momentum.

As both a Palo Alto parent and a former Stanford dean, I believe it’s time for Silicon Valley to confront a heartbreaking paradox. We’ve sown a set of educational, technological, and economic opportunities that are meant to shape a brighter future for our own children, our nation, and the world. Yet growing up here can make our kids feel hopeless and helpless about whether they actually have any chance of attaining the grand futures we have in mind.

In theory, parents want to know what’s going on. But when The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin published a thoughtful, in-depth analysis after coming to town to interview teenagers, educators, clinicians, and families, the outrage over her article rivaled the outcry that followed our most recent spate of suicides.

How dare this “stranger” try to tell us about our own community, people complained in emails and social media posts. How dare she suggest that our problem is not simply severely depressed kids who didn’t get the help they needed because of a lack of resources and social stigma?

Over the last year, our community came together to demand more mental health resources and support for our kids, to create an awareness of such resources, and to try to reduce the stigma around asking for help. School leaders adjusted high school’s start time to a later hour, to align with the sleeping patterns that pediatricians say are healthy for teens, and capped the number of hours of homework that our high schoolers can be subjected to each week. Adults began listening more to kids.

All of this helps. Yet we still have no answers to the fundamental question: Why do so many of our teens feel life is not worth living?

In order to understand why our children are making the decision to die, Silicon Valley parents need to be willing to examine what is perhaps our community’s most sacred cow: the false but tightly-held belief that students must attend a highly selective college to be worth anything in life, and that our worth as parents is also measured by that metric.

With this mindset as mantra, and with those colleges routinely denying 90-95% of applicants, we set our children on a grim racecourse to try to beat those nearly impossible odds. We’ve created a way of life in which kids have no time for play—which is an inalienable right for every child around the globe, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Instead, we insist that every moment of our children’s lives be enriching, as if each activity, athletic endeavor, quiz, and piece of homework is a make or break moment for their future. As if every afternoon must be harnessed for usefulness.

Under this yoke, our teenagers enter high school and ask advisors which activities they should pursue in order to get into the right college instead of following their own interests. They work with tutors to turn B’s into A’s. When what constitutes “the best” is a moving target set by each year’s round of college admission results, they’re continually exhausted as if they’re running a race that has no end. They feed the SAT beast, filling evenings, weekends, and holidays with preparation for tests they’ll take multiple times. The most successful among them earn scores that put them in the 99th percentile nationally, but only in the 75th percentile at their own high school. Therefore some of our highest achievers feel mediocre in a town that demands excellence.

We parents stand guard like sentinels over our children’s childhood, trying to ensure they stay focused on these standards of academic and extra-curricular achievement that are so much higher than they were in our day. We act with the best of intentions. We believe that the prestige and networking opportunities associated with brand-name colleges and universities is necessary for success, and that the pressure and stress associated with getting the perfect grades and scores those schools demand are therefore worth it. Just last week as final exam time approached for many, I saw a number of parents share a meme on Facebook meant to justify our complicity in the stress and strain of our children’s lives: “Pain is temporary – a GPA is forever.”

These beliefs have blinded us to reality. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni’s recent book Where You’ll Go Is Not Who You’ll Be beautifully conveys the point that most of the people we regard as successful in our nation didn’t attend the most highly selective colleges. One example Bruni cites is New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who had hoped to go to Georgetown but didn’t get in. Instead he went to a state school—the University of Delaware.

“It was a place where all of us felt that if we worked hard, we could do well,” Christie says in the book. “I never felt that the school wasn’t going to give me tools to be successful.”

The University of Delaware also happens to be vice president Joe Biden’s alma mater. Bruni goes on to cite a study of 550 American CEOs and nonprofit leaders that found that almost two-thirds “attended schools that are not considered elite institutions.”

Moreover, in David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell draws upon research that shows it’s actually more advantageous for a student to attend a college where they can be in the top 10% rather than in the bottom half of the class. It’s the top students at every college who receive the kind of attention from faculty and access to special programs that pave the way to more opportunity after college.

So it’s hardly the end of the world if a student doesn’t go to a highly selective college. Moreover, there’s evidence in every community—even Palo Alto—that happy, successful people went to colleges in every tier, including community colleges, or didn’t even go to college at all. Do we really believe it’s a highly selective college or bust for our kids? Or is our real motive that we want them to attend a college we can brag about?

It’s devastating that a community that has everything to offer can make our children feel like nothing. We need to do more than change school policies and establish mental health resources for those among us who suffer. We need to boldly boycott the entire system and mindset that suggests a person’s worth and value is the sum of their grades and scores, and which college they attend. Our kids might feel that life is worth living if they know that they matter to us, just by virtue of being who they are.