It was too enticing. When news of the college admissions “Varsity Blues” scandal that ensnared such Hollywood stars as Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin broke, it was only a matter of time before a movie would follow.
And now true to form, the Lifetime cable network just released its trailer for the dramatized movie about the scandal.
While Hollywood fictionalizes the college admissions scandal, there’s nothing fictional about the intense pressure many parents and students feel regarding the college admissions process. It’s what led to so many high-profile individuals acting illegally to get their children into name-brand colleges.
Scholars of higher education love to focus on the functional reasons people go to college. They talk about the 14% earnings premium for those with bachelor’s degrees, or how college graduates are far less likely to be unemployed than those who don’t complete higher education. According to UCLA’s annual survey of freshmen entering four-year colleges, roughly 90% now attend college to get a job, which is up from roughly two-thirds in the mid-1970s.
Research we conducted over the last several years for our new book Choosing College, in which we collected and analyzed more than 200 personal stories and conducted surveys of more than 1,000 students who have chosen different paths for higher education, tells a different tale. The social and emotional pressures that weigh on parents and students represent a significant set of factors in explaining where students choose to go to college.
These forces often play themselves out in a myopic race to get into the “best school” for its own sake, rather than around a clear sense of the functional pay-off a school will have, the doors it will open, or even what students might do once enrolled.
Many students we talked to said they went to college because it felt like the next logical step. It’s what society expected them to do, and what they had been led to expect.
They had put in the work and, in their minds, earned the opportunity to have the “best for them” in their pursuit of being “the best”—something that can only be measured socially relative to others. These students wanted the classic “college experience” on a beautiful campus, the opportunity to reinvent themselves with new people, and, tellingly, to belong to a place with prestige and a great reputation.
These social and emotional pressures play out in pernicious ways in communities like Lexington, Massachusetts; Palo Alto, California; and Bethesda, Maryland.
In Palo Alto, five students committed suicide in a nine-month span between May 2009 and January 2010. Three more took their lives between October 2014 and April 2015.
According to the New York Times, in a 2015 survey, “95% of Lexington High School students reported being heavily stressed over their classes and 15% said they had considered killing themselves in the last year.”
Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, where I graduated, has an entire bestselling book written about the pressure its students feel titled The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by journalist Alexandra Robbins.
The best outcome from the Lifetime film would be for parents and students to take a step back, gain some perspective and, yes, maybe even laugh—or cry—at the pressures that would cause parents to descend into lawlessness to get their children into a top college. As a society we need to ask serious questions about how this pressure cooker ran so far amuck that people would knowingly lie and cheat to get into school.
Then parents of children who are stressed about the college admissions process need to help their children relax.
Don’t just talk about the statistics that reveal you can have a great life outcome regardless of where you go to school so long as you work hard; show them through your actions that relaxing is both OK and a good idea.
Parents should throw out the college rankings lists and instead help their children focus on what is important and what is a nonstarter in their college experience—for them. Finally, parents should broaden the choices that children have so they can find the right match.
The reality is that life is a long journey. As students branch out into the real world, the artificial rat race we have constructed around accolades and “being successful” becomes less relevant. The “train” that we have been led to believe we must stay on—and ride in the front car, no less—will still be waiting.
Here’s to hoping a fictionalized movie version of this scandal starts to allow us to move today’s current college admissions reality into a distant memory.
Michael B. Horn and Bob Moesta are the coauthors of the book “Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life” (September 2019).