College Prep for Tots?

Just the other day, the Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA released its annual report on the mental health and well-being of college freshmen—a survey they’ve been conducting for nearly 50 years. It showed an ever-worsening trend. Recent high school graduates are 50% more likely to be depressed than they were five years ago, and about one-third say they’re anxious and overwhelmed by all of their commitments. Other research indicates freshmen are inundating and overtaxing whatever psychological services colleges and universities are able to offer. No one is debating the cause of this worrisome phenomenon; because of the escalating frenzy about college admissions, which results in students working more intensely and achieving less balance in their lives, they’re arriving at college already stressed out and burned out.

Now, it turns out, there is a growing movement to introduce this college-related anxiety as early as preschool. In a well-intentioned but, in my opinion, misguided effort to insure that disadvantaged children grow up with the knowledge and motivation to strive for college, the curriculum in many nursery and elementary schools includes college-related themes and activities. First graders, for example, are asked to choose a college, write about what they wish to study there, and fill out mock applications. There are field trips to college—many to Harvard.

Unfortunately, according to the Pell Institute, since 1970 college attendance has grown only for children from affluent, well-educated families, who are using their resources to maximize their kids’ advantages. At best, perhaps, these first or third graders are coming away from these activities and field trips with developmentally appropriate observations—for example, colleges are big, they sell candy there, and nobody makes you go to bed. But I fear kids also come away with new-found apprehension that everything they will do until they’re 18 is aimed at this one goal of attending college. This premature focus on the future robs kids of whatever spontaneity and experimentation they are still given in this precocity-obsessed culture. Let’s remember that imaginative, unstructured play in childhood has been proven enormously beneficial in developing the skills most needed for success in later life.

Building college resumes in elementary school is the antithesis of this principle, requiring a single-minded focus and commitment that young children should not be asked or expected to provide. The idea of telling kids they should stay the course in their extracurricular activities because colleges like to see “endurance” is ludicrous. How can they be expected to make informed decisions by age 8 or 10? Shouldn’t they be allowed—no, encouraged—to reflect on their evolving interests and explore different avenues as a result? Doesn’t it make more sense to help young kids develop the self-awareness and problem-solving skills that  later on will enable them to determine which colleges are good matches for them, places where they can thrive?

To avoid fueling the already intense college frenzy, many institutions are sensibly and commendably refusing to offer tours to children below the high school level. I can only hope that many parents will make this same decision, bucking this worrisome trend and choosing instead to spend that time with their kids playing games, reading, taking walks, or enjoying music.



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