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Are High Expectations Distorting College Dreams?

April 16, 2014
by Pilar Cabeza de Vaca, Head of School

Sometimes spring brings hope and renewal; at other times the beauty of our surroundings can be marred by sobering news and statistics. As I look in renewed wonder at the soft pinks and whites in the trees surrounding The Land, I am also saddened after reading an article that points to the challenges still facing girls and young women.

Why We Find It So Hard To Change,” by Madeline Levine, comments on the stress that all young people are facing with the increasing pressure put on them by society at large to do the right thing, get into the right school, make the right choices, and be the epitome of perfection. Unfortunately for girls, this striving for perfection comes with a seventy eight percent (yes, 78%) increase in the rate of suicide over the past decade. Levine’s article focuses on the difficulty of taking on change, in this case, regarding especially what has become the rat race of college admissions. In our adult world, we often measure success in terms of getting the right degree from the right college, going on to the right job with the right (high) salary.  In our good intentions to do the very best for our children and offer them the right opportunities, we often forget that success comes in many forms. 

When I read articles describing the college admissions process (“Best, Brightest and Rejected: Elite Colleges Turn Away up to 95%,“New York Times, April 8, 2014), I wonder how our students can stand the pressure and survive it. The good news is that on Wednesday, during one of my senior advisory dinners at home, I asked the girls if they felt the process at Madeira was stressful and difficult. To a girl they responded that it was not. They found instead that it was detailed, perhaps a bit long, but they came out of it feeling that they had chosen what was a best fit for each one as an individual (although one of them had four top colleges on her list of acceptances that she was in the process of considering before making a final decision). What was difficult for them, though, was the “rest of the world” making judgments as to whether they had applied to the most difficult, or telling them that perhaps they had settled for less by choosing the college that had the best program on offer in her selected field of study, even if it might not have the biggest name. Madeira girls are truly aware, in a very mature way, that college is what you make of it. I hope they are equally aware that it is far better to be a big fish in a smaller pond than a small fish in the large ocean. The former has many more opportunities to avail herself of leadership opportunities and formal recognition, can stand out in the crowd, and will most likely stand out to future employers; the latter will be lost in the shuffle, and research supports that they are indistinguishable from others who do not make it to the top. 

What are we doing to this generation of young adults? We all want the best for them. How can we achieve that by putting them at so much risk for debilitating stress that they might make it into the next stage of education and life and be burned out before they even begin their lives as full fledged adults? I believe deep down we are all struggling with finding the right balance between providing a safe environment and the best opportunities while giving our students the right dose of setting high expectations and preparing each of them for a bright future.