Race to Nowhere: Is it Worth the Stress to Get Into a ‘Good’ College?

For high school students, there’s a lot of pressure to get into a ‘good’ or ‘successful’ college. It’s been a childhood dream for many to go to a prestigious university like one of the Ivy Leagues, but for what? 

A stressed high school student rests her head in her hands. Contemplating college options while simultaneously managing schoolwork can be a lot of pressure for students. (Photo by Grace Cowart)

While research certainly indicates that college graduates earn more on average than non-college graduates, one might wonder if it really matters which college they attend. These prestigious schools are likely to put you on the path to greatness, but are they truly worth the stress that comes with attending one?

So what exactly is a ‘good’ college? While ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are subjective, it’s generally assumed that the Ivy League and higher-tier colleges such as UC Berkeley, UCLA and Stanford are ideal. These selective schools have acceptance rates that range from under 20% to even under 5%. 

In a world where these schools are idealized, many high-performing students are pressured or even expected to attend one of these colleges by their families and teachers. The college one attends is a source of pride for parents and grandparents.

Arizona State University Psychology Professor Suniya Luthar discussed the amount of pressure that’s put on high schoolers to go to high-achieving schools.

“When parents ask me where all of this pressure is coming from, I ask them: Where is it not?” Luthar said. “The unrelenting pressure on students in high-achieving schools comes from every direction, from overly-invested parents who want A’s, coaches who want wins for their own personal reputations and school administrators who feel pressured to get high standardized scores in their school.”

The front gates of Stanford University are decorated with a beautiful fountain and array of trees. Stanford is one of the top-ranking colleges in the nation, despite not being an Ivy League. Many students feel inclined to go to such high-performing schools. (Photo Taken From Stanford News)

There are plenty of reasons why so many people attempt to get into prestigious colleges. Some of the more reputable schools have impressive endowments, notable professors and their peers are considered the best of the best—all of which could help with networking and creating future opportunities. 

The colleges themselves also provide great names for job applications and can give a significant head start to finding the career you desire. Not to mention, the schools have a virtually endless budget, so students have access to resources like Broadway-sized stages and enormous libraries.

Prestigious schools don’t exist without drawbacks, however. The schools are incredibly difficult to get into, with an admission process so selective that anything lower than a 4.0 GPA would almost definitely exclude the candidate. And even if you are accepted, some of the highest-tier private universities have an average tuition of $56,000, which is excluding textbooks and boarding fees

While these colleges can offer financial aid scholarships for those who don’t make a lot of money, they don’t offer academic scholarships or athletic scholarships. This means that middle-class families who can’t afford college but don’t qualify for financial aid are in a spot where they won’t be able to attend.

Looking even deeper beneath the successes of Ivy League students, there are many underlying psychological issues that come with attending a prestigious college. The amount of pressure put on students to do well in these schools can eliminate creativity and passion; students get tunnel vision on receiving all A’s, and in the process, lose sight of what college is really about.

A performing arts center at Yale University features nice red velvet chairs and a refined stage. The Ivy League’s budget allows for a vast amount of extracurricular resources, such as this pristine performing arts center. (Photo Taken From The Shops at Yale)

Former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz discussed his experience with students’ mental health in higher-ranking universities.

“Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose,” Deresiewicz said.

It can also cause students to believe their only sense of value is in their achievements, and when an inevitable failure occurs, they lose all sense of self. There’s a reason why students in high-achieving schools are three times more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. 

Even with the pros and cons of prestigious colleges considered, is there really a difference in the long run? Not necessarily. While Ivy League graduates tend to make more money than the national average, that doesn’t mean that going to an Ivy League will automatically make you successful. More often than not, Ivy League students come from already wealthy or legacy families who skew the data of universities that actually help you receive your desired jobs.

Even so, it’s more than possible to do well without going to an Ivy League or high-ranking college. In the top 10 Fortune 100 CEOs, only 1 out of the 10 went to an Ivy League, so why is it so commonly assumed that a good college equals success?

An infographic features the amount of non-Ivy League graduate F100 CEOs. Very few CEOs went to an Ivy League college, despite being considered some of the most successful people in the nation. (Photo Taken From Forbes)

Nina Wang, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), sees the bigger picture of how college affects your career.

“You don’t really need to go to a ‘good’ school to have a great job or career,” Wang said. “Some people can even end up in jobs they hate because they feel pressured to go into more competitive fields.”

The question we should be asking ourselves is, “Where does this race lead?” We’re all trying to get the best grades, get into the best universities and get into the best graduate schools. But why? Does it really lead to a higher-paying job? Does it even lead to a happy, balanced life?

Reputable schools sound great on paper, but they don’t seem to give us much more than a degree and bragging rights. When selecting your college, consider more than just what will get you the best job. The question you need to ask yourself is “Will this choice make me happy?”