In Spider Man: No Way Home, teenager Peter Parker and his friends have a big problem–and it isn’t a supervillain or a rift in the space time continuum.
It’s worse: they don’t get into their dream college. In fact, it is a desperate attempt to reverse fate and get into that highly selective school which results in a plague of supervillains from other dimensions.
As I sat in the theater with two teenage daughters, I knew all too well that Peter Parker and his friends aren’t the only ones feeling anxiety about getting into college (or more accurately, anxiety about which college). In this movie, art imitates life; according to Pew Research, about 70% of U.S. teens who plan to go to college are anxious about whether they will get into the college of their choice.
Parents are anxious, too. The Let Grow motto “when parents step back, kids step up” sounds good–but when it comes to college, for many parents the stakes seem too high to let go. You probably remember the recent “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal in which college coaches and test proctors were bribed in an elaborate scam to game the admissions process to elite schools. Those parents were breaking the law–but the NY Times reports that totally legal college consulting is now a multi-billion dollar industry, with tens of thousands of families getting help on everything from essay topics to what activities will look good on a college application.
Why all this fear and anxiety? Psychology Today says heightened parent concerns about which college our kids will attend “reflects parents’ perception that in an increasingly unequal economy, the path to success for their children has narrowed.” Parents love their kids and we want them to be ok–and think that which college they go to will help them.
But let’s take a step back and see what we and our kids really want. And then let’s ask how important which college you go to actually is.
Everyone wants to be happy, right? The Brookings Institute reports that students who attend a “prestigious” school like Yale or Amherst end up no happier than students who attend less selective schools.
If which college you attend doesn’t make you happier, what does? According to a recent Gallup poll, “enduring effects of the college experience on human happiness relate to personal bonds with professors and a sense of ongoing intellectual curiosity.”
So much for happiness. What else do we and our kids want for the future?
According to a PEW research report, we want our school age kids to grow up to be responsible, hardworking and helpful. And teens are concerned with living fulfilled lives–81% want a job they enjoy, and most of them want to know that they are making the world a better place.
Those are beautiful sentiments! But having a job you enjoy depends more on what job you have rather than where you went to college–and being hardworking depends more on, uh, how hard you work.
But…I know what you’re thinking right now. Because as a dad worried about whether my kids will be able to put a roof over their heads, I thought about it too!
What about the Benjamins?
First of all, let’s not kid around. As awesome as the trades can be, that Brookings Institute report makes it clear that college grads have “higher wages, better health, greater job security, more interesting work and greater personal autonomy” on average than people who don’t graduate from college.
But what college you go to matters way less for future income than which specific program you attend. When the Foundation for Research On Equal Opportunity did a comprehensive analysis on the ROI (or Return On Investment, the change in expected lifetime earnings less the cost of education) on almost 30,000 degrees, they found that every college, including the most selective, has programs that statistically make students poorer, not richer.
ROI also drops for students who take more than 4 years to graduate–and it really drops for students who don’t finish college. And taking out a student loan for a fancy degree could also be counterproductive; a Magnify Money study of Financial Reserve data shows that millennials with student debt have only 25% of the net worth of those who graduate debt free.
There are a lot of ways that teens can positively affect their future earnings and wealth that don’t relate to which college they go to–like what career path they choose, how hardworking and motivated they are, how well they work with others and help others, and whether they get a savings and investing habit.
Our kids–and us–are being sold an illusion–the idea that getting into a particular college is more important than their characters and actions. It’s a lie that sustains an expensive college consulting industry and predatory student loan industry, inflates tuition, pressures high school kids to have superficial experiences and activities, exacerbates inequality by loading up high-achieving poor kids with student loans, and contributes to immense anxiety and cynicism in kids and parents.
Want to be happy in college? Do things that make you happy, like being curious and grateful, finding professors and classmates who you can learn from, and contributing to others. Want to make money and become wealthy? Pick your program with wide open eyes, learn good financial habits, and avoid student loans unless you’re crystal clear on how they’ll be paid off–and be sure to be hard working and dependable!
If even a superhero like Spiderman has a hard time fighting the illusion that what college you get into matters more than who you are and what you do, then as mere mortals our work is cut out for us. But here are a few suggestions to help your teen (and you) have a healthier view of attending college.
Read this article with your teen. Ask them what kind of a life they want to live emotionally, professionally and financially. Then, encourage them to explore schools and majors on the FREOPP database for a look behind the curtain. Watch the non-partisan (featuring voices ranging from AOC to Dave Ramsey) Borrowed Future documentary about student loans.
And over and over again remind them that what they seem to be isn’t as important as who they are and what they do. Their best plan for high school is the same as their best plan for life–have fun and do their best! They’ll be fine.
Teens are anxious about college: https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/02/20/most-u-s-teens-see-anxiety-and-depression-as-a-major-problem-among-their-peers
Why are parents scared about college: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/love-money-and-parenting/201903/why-are-parents-so-scared-about-college
Varsity blues scandal: https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/operation-varsity-blues-college-admissions-scandal/
Multi-billion dollar college consulting industry: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/13/us/college-admissions-consultants.html
TIME magazine Pew poll: “And the Quality Most Parents Want to Teach Their Children Is …”
What moms want for their babies:
Mindshare survey of teens:
Where you go to college doesn’t affect your happiness: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2014/05/20/harvard-said-no-be-happy/
A majority of teens are worried about the cost of higher education
A comprehensive study on the Return On Investment by college and program: https://freopp.org/is-college-worth-it-a-comprehensive-return-on-investment-analysis-1b2ad17f84c8
Oh yes and student loans: https://www.magnifymoney.com/blog/news/student-debt-kills-millennials-average-net-worth/
Money isn’t everything, but:
Motivation, not college choice, leads to higher achievement: