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The Pain of Privilege; Or, You Thought College Admissions Couldn’t Get Any Sillier, Didn’t You?

March 9, 2008, 8:25 pm

Having created a ridiculous problem, which is that high school students have to build a resume and a transcript worthy of a Rhodes scholar to get into a selective four-year college, you will be glad to know that these coveted institutions and gatekeepers to success have found a solution to the stress this causes to young people. The answer is to throw money at it, imply that the students and their helicopter parents are pathological, and urge the admitted students not to matriculate until they have rested and feel less emotional and cynical about the whole thing.

That’s right. Do not re-evaluate what you are doing that is causing kids to show up at college as nervous wrecks, and sometimes even leave after a month or two because they are so burned out and care so little about real learning anymore. Do not admit that, because of you, young people are running themselves ragged with multiple after school activities, course overloads, AP examinations, science fairs, commuting to college classes while still in high school, music lessons, meeting with their tutors, tutoring others less fortunate, and being three-sport varsity athletes to get a shot at going to a half-way decent school. Instead, denounce the fact that they are burned out after having done what you insist they must do to gain admission to your expensive university and encourage them to pay you even more money so that they can take a year off doing something enriching in a foreign land. By doing so, you can also help create a new class of experts — in addition to the private athletic coaches, college application consultants, and SAT tutors who are already flourishing because of your ridiculous so-called “standards” — who can be paid to help an Ivy League-bound teen relax in just the right way, get away from those pushy parents and regain her shattered peace of mind. All over the country gap year planners will help your child attain the maturity he had no opportunity to develop, so pressed was he with fulfilling his parents’ ambitions — not, mind you, competing realistically to get a place at a selective college or university.

That’s right: as Alex Williams reports today in the New York Times,

Princeton unveiled plans to send at least a 10th of its incoming students abroad for a year of social service before starting at the university. High schools now hold gap-year fairs to teach students about the option, and companies and consultants that place students in gap-year programs (guitar-building in England or caring for injured sled dogs in Canada) are proliferating.

Full disclosure: I have had, and will have, a number of young people in my family who have suffered from the effects of what I now call the College Derby, who are actually quite privileged by comparison to most of the young people growing up here in Shoreline, and I think this story is just gross.

In addition to Williams’ failure to acknowledge that it is a little nuts for the students in question to be so strung out in high school (something which is perhaps not entirely her fault, since selective colleges — like the ones she researched for the story — perceive all problems, even one the colleges are directly responsible for apparently, as having originated in high school or at home), the story also doesn’t acknowledge that this year off costs an arm and a leg, effectively adding a fifth year of college fees. Nor does it acknowledge that working and poor people have another way of taking time off before college. It’s called military service, without which they cannot hope to pay for higher education, but because of which they might leave all or part of their brains over in Iraq or Afghanistan, and thus perhaps be rendered less likely to make the most of the college experience.

I hate the war so much that it is rare for me to express the sympathy and compassion I feel for the men and women who are fighting it, and for the families who struggle financially and emotionally while soldiers are deployed. But is there a better expression of the “two Americas” that John Edwards put at the heart of his Presidential campaign than a story like this?

So some American kids will take their year off at cooking school in France, and some will take several years off (more, if the military exercises its option to keep them indefinitely; less if they get blown up or become deranged) in Kabul.

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