College Try

High School and the high cost of high achievement.

College Try

Alexandra Robbins, author of “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.”

“Back when I was in school I had to…” [fill in the blank with your choice of unenviable hardship]. Sorry, but adults can’t use that line anymore, because the demands of school are more grueling and stressful than ever before. That’s the lesson of “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids” (Hyperion), in which author Alexandra Robbins chronicles the exploits of a diverse group of high school students—all of them under intense pressure to meet arbitrary numerical goals (SAT, GPA, class rank) and earn admission to a name-brand college or university. As Robbins’ book demonstrates, the succeed at all costs mentality that now pervades our secondary school system takes its toll on parents and students alike.

Failure interviewed Robbins to get the lowdown on the state of education and to explain how a B is now equated with failure.

In “The Overachievers” the students you follow are from your alma mater, Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland. How have things changed since you graduated in 1994?
At Whitman and high schools across the country things have become a lot more intense. School is now a dog-eat-dog battleground rather than a place where students can learn to develop their identities and figure out what they want to do later in life. School is not about a love of learning anymore. It’s now a competitive sport.

How did we get from Jeff Spicoli [Sean Penn, Fast Times at Ridgemont High] to Tracy Flick [Reese Witherspoon, Election]?
[Laughs]. It’s a mix of a number of things. One is the sheer increase in numbers. In only five years the number of students enrolling in college has increased by 1.2 million. That increases the competition—especially for selective universities and colleges—which haven’t increased the number of spots available. Students start hyperventilating because they think they have to get into a top-tier college to succeed in life, and because the numbers at the traditionally top-tier colleges haven’t changed, it’s trickling down to what in the past were less selective colleges, which can now afford to be selective because there are so many students vying for acceptance.

How much stock are students and parents putting into college rankings?
Way too much. I’ve heard from students who say they will only apply to the top 25 schools on those lists, not realizing that the categories the magazines use to rank schools have no bearing on the undergraduate experience. For example, one factor is how much professors are paid. Well, professors are often paid according to how much research they do, and if professors are spending time doing research then they are not spending a lot of time with students. Another factor is the rate of alumni giving. That doesn’t work either, because often that has to do with how well a school’s football team did that year. Plus, the colleges cheat on that data too. According to the Washington Monthly, there is one west coast college that reclassifies alumni who haven’t donated in five years as “dead.”

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