It's Not Where You Go...

by Crystal Land

March 2019

I’ve been reading and pondering (a lot!) about the recent College Admissions scandal  involving, at its core, adults using money and position to manipulate elite college admissions decisions on behalf of their children. The actions of these parents and coaches highlights the fallacy that there are only a very few colleges worth attending, and that using corrupt and illegal methods to achieve admissions is somehow warranted in order to ensure their child’s future well-being. These parents are misguided in their assumption that they are setting their children up for “success,” when all of the research on grit, resilience and moral development shows the opposite. According to psychologist Richard Weissbourd, this kind of one-dimensional focus “corrodes the development of core aspects of young people’s ethical character, often fueling their self-interest, compromising their integrity, and depleting their capacity to either know themselves deeply or to authentically articulate their identity.” 

My colleagues and I recognize the stress our students face in the college admissions process. Watching our seniors navigate this journey is not easy as they carry their hopes and dreams for the “just right” outcome and for their bright futures. And yet, I have also observed generations of Head-Royce alumni attend and graduate from a very wide range of colleges and universities. I know—unequivocally—that a successful and happy adult life, including career, does not equate with where one attends college. While most of us acknowledge the flawed logic in today’s college admissions race, the frenzy to protect, shepherd and guide our children in an increasingly competitive world can lead to undermining the psychological health of our students.

In our College Counseling Office’s recent “Fireside Chat,” the college counselors asked parents to reflect on a formative moment in their educational journey--perhaps a class that defined a future interest; a teacher who made a difference; or an educational experience that led to a path of self-discovery. For me, it was a decision to attend a large, four-year public university where I was simultaneously overwhelmed, stimulated, engaged and, ultimately, empowered during my time there. I took only a few life-changing classes, muddled through many large lectures, served as a Resident Assistant in the dorms, ran for student office (and won) and, through it all, developed critical thinking, writing and speaking skills--and, ultimately, the confidence to pursue graduate studies and become an educator. The experience certainly shaped the person I am today. But, it was not where I attended, it was what I did while I was in college that made all of the difference. 

So, how can we help ourselves and help our students, from the youngest to our seniors, maintain healthy priorities and motivations? Over the past three years, Head-Royce has partnered with Challenge Success, an organization based out of Stanford University that works with schools like Head-Royce to reduce student stress, depression and mental health concerns and to, instead, create healthy practices around achievement, parental expectations, homework load, sleep, decision-making and the college process. Their goal is to help schools create environments for healthy, engaged students AND strong schools. Last fall, approximately 240 of our parents, grades 4-12, participated in a Challenge Success parent survey to better understand the adult perceptions of their child’s experiences each day here at Head-Royce and in the larger world of school, college and life.

Details of this parent survey are included here, compiled by our Balance and Well-being Committee Chairs, Molly Barrett, Saya McKenna, and Rachel Concannon. The headline: when asked to rank the attributes that best describe success for their child, “sense of well being” was most often ranked number one in all three divisions. Yet there are disconnects with what we say we believe and what we model. Based on our survey results, parents care deeply about well-being, achievement, advanced degrees and college matriculation, and also believe that other parents care more about Ivy League names. So, here’s the challenge: we want what’s best for our children—and we want them to “succeed”—but we are often the ones defining success for them through grades, achievement or college admissions—our lens of success, not theirs. Hence, the critical question: Does this actually lead to a life of purpose and contentment?

In the recently released report, Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in The College Admissions Process, Harvard (yes, Harvard) researcher and psychologist Richard Weissbourd and fellow researchers, state recommendations for parents that include keeping the focus on your teen, utilizing the admissions process as an opportunity for ethical education, and advocating for elevating ethical character and reducing achievement-related distress. It’s worth reading as it highlights research-based impacts of overly focusing on achievement and college outcomes. 

Paul Franz from Challenge Success writes: “We see a growing crisis of students not getting enough sleep, of suffering from physical and mental health problems, of using drugs to self-medicate or to stay up just a little later to finish their homework. We’ve painted a picture of success that is far too narrow, and, sadly, the coverage of this admissions scandal reinforces that narrative. It says: admissions to an elite college is success, or at least is a prerequisite for success. That’s wrong.” He, and others, call this a teachable moment--how can we have more honest and open dialogue about what really matters? I invite you to contribute to this larger conversation at home as we continue to talk about this at school 

Richard Weissbourd sums it up: “Parents are trying to give their kids ‘everything’ but they’re not giving them what counts.”  Let’s renew our commitment to give our students a healthier picture of what counts here at Head-Royce. 

- Crystal Land

Other resources on this topic:

Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be, Frank Bruni
A Fit over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More than Selectivity, Challenge Success
Reflections on a College Admissions Scandal: A Teachable Moment, Challenge Success