The Problem with Prestige: Mental Health, Personal Growth, and what Really Matters in Choosing a College

February 8, 2019
Alex McNeilCollege

The Prestige Trap: How increasingly high expectations are harming students

What’s in a name? Specifically, what’s in the name of a college? When I applied, the answer seemed to be “a lot,” and not much has changed since then. For today’s high school students, the process of applying to college is an experience of singular magnitude — it is the culmination of years of hard work, a rite of passage to adulthood, and, to many, a litmus test of personal worth. You don’t have to look very hard to find institutions validating the same fearful logic: If you don’t get into a prestigious school, you’ve failed.

Today’s society too often focuses on prestige. Students and parents alike treat high school as merely a prelude to college admissions, prioritizing performance over wellbeing. This mindset leads to an academic culture that demands higher and higher levels of achievement from students. The consequences? Sleep deprivation, burnout, and depression. And all of this is based on the premise that attending a prestigious college will eventually bring greater happiness, wellbeing, and life satisfaction. This is what we call the prestige trap — the inescapable narrative that the prestige of one’s school stands in for both one’s current worth and future opportunity.

The prestige trap and ever-plummeting college acceptance rates have spawned an academic culture in which students agonize over the superficial: the last decimal point of a GPA, an SAT percentile score, the acceptance rate of the college one ultimately attends.

The consequences of this trend are borne largely by students, who contend with epidemic levels of academic-related stress. According to Stanford educational nonprofit Challenge Success, 83% of teens reported that school was a significant source of stress, while 50% of Bay Area teens reported headaches, difficulty sleeping, and exhaustion due to academic stress. A final grim statistic: According to the CDC, in 2011, 15.8% of high school students had seriously considered attempting suicide within the previous 12 months, up dramatically from years previous. The same study showed academic-related anxiety as a frequent cause of suicidal ideation.

These statistics attest to an academic culture running students ragged. And when high school students spend their days being shuttled between AP classes, soccer practice, and SAT tutoring, then return home to spend an average of 3.07 hours per night on homework, what else can we expect? The direct cost of these routines is self-care, meaningful engagement with the community, and leisure time spent with friends.

Who wins as a result? Popular wisdom—and the implicit narratives of school rankings—suggests that attending a highly selective university comes with a range of perks: higher wages after graduation, deeper and more valuable personal networks, and a more gratifying experience during college. The facts, however, contradict this picture.

The Data: Not Prestige, but Experience Leads to Success  

Across a number of studies and accounts, it’s clear that when it comes to life after graduation, the happiest students were not necessarily those who had attended more selective colleges. Rather, the happier students were those who took time to grow extracurricularly and engage in sustained projects outside the classroom; to build strong connections with mentors, such as professors and professionals; and to discover genuine interests that would sustain them beyond the classroom. It is also clear that the incomes of students who went to highly selective colleges were only occasionally higher than that of their peers who had attended less selective schools — and not higher whatsoever in STEM fields.

In light of these data, highly selective colleges yield, at best, only slightly better professional outcomes than their less selective counterparts. Yet when one considers the mental cost of pursuing these programs, the calculation looks much different. In high school, a student must undergo four grueling years in a culture of academic achievement that always demands more — and which often leads to exhaustion and burnout. In college, the cycle begins again, with students pushed to dangerously high levels of academic anxiety. In service of academics, they often forego the invaluable extracurricular opportunities and intimate mentorships that, in the end, will provide them with the experience — not the GPA — that makes an investment in college worthwhile.

It’s time to realize that pursuing prestige often comes at the cost of personal wellbeing and growth. If the reason one goes to college is not simply to perform but to learn, grow, and gain the skills and self-knowledge critical to life after college, it pays to not merely consider selectivity. In most cases, in fact, it pays to not consider selectivity at all.

Instead, students in high school should look for opportunities (academic or otherwise) that will offer them a chance to develop skills, build strong relationships, and pursue meaningful work even while prioritizing personal health and wellbeing. (Gap years programs are especially good for this and, for college-bound students, we also recommend Colleges that Change Lives.) If we forego prestige as the criteria guiding the college search process, we can also reimagine the structure of time in high school. Rather than bending over backwards to marginally increase a GPA, students could spend meaningful time volunteering in their community, relaxing with friends, or getting an extra hour of sleep each night.

Now is the time to turn away from prestige in college selection and to look instead for programs which provide the tools for students to challenge and discover themselves. The truth about college selection — that the most prestigious schools don’t necessarily produce the most successful people - can be a hard pill to swallow. But considering the epidemic of stress, anxiety, and depression unfolding in high schools everywhere, it is a medicine we desperately need to take

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