A Race to Nowhere Skeptic

Race to Nowhere, a documentary about the stress that college-bound teenagers experience, has gotten a lot of attention.

I first heard about Race to Nowhere a couple of weeks ago after I gave a college presentation to a group of financial advisers and their clients in Irvine, CA. An adviser, who raved about the film, wrote its title on his business card so I wouldn’t forget it.

Tracking down the documentary was on my list of things to do when I saw a story on the film this week on The Today Show.

A Wake-Up Call?

Race to Nowhere is supposed to serve as a wake-up call to the pressures that teenagers are under to excel in high school.  Here’s a blurb from the film’s website that describes the documentary:

Featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people in all types of communities who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

Take a Deep Breath

It sounds really grim. Right? At the risk of commenting on the Race To Nowhere, a movie that I’ve only read about and not seen yet, I do want to inject something here that might prevent some parental hyperventilating.

When I hear students talking about how they are essentially sacrificing their lives to get into colleges, I shake my head. Students don’t have to do this. Close to 70% of high school students get into their first choice colleges and universities. Frankly, that doesn’t sound like an impossible task.

The stress, however,  jumps exponentially when students aim for the most exclusive schools in the country – the Ivies and the top 15 or 20 schools in the liberal arts and national university categories in the US News & World Report college rankings. And the sort of kids who are aiming for these schools tend to be affluent students who attend top suburban high schools and private schools.

Self-Induced Stress?

I think a lot of this college angst is unnecessary. Folks, there are thousands of colleges and universities out there. And they don’t expect a student to take three, four or five AP classes a semester. They don’t expect you to be involved in multiple outside activities. They don’t expect students to ace their ACT or SAT test. These schools want good students, but they don’t expect perfection.

My advice to students is to stop fixating on the same small group of highly recognizable colleges and universities that the most stressed high schools students are typically focused on. And please stop assuming that this tiny cohort of highly elite schools represent the nation’s best!

Broaden your search for colleges and then you can reclaim your teenager years. You will be happier that you did and you’ll probably ultimately find a college that’s a better fit.

Here’s where you can find the Today Show clip on the Race to Nowhere. Here’s where you can find Race to Nowhere screenings in communities across the country.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller and a workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. Follow her on Twitter.

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4 Responses to A Race to Nowhere Skeptic

  1. Kris Hintz January 22, 2011 at 3:45 am #

    Lynn, I couldn’t agree with you more. I encourage clients in my college consulting practice to consider a broader range of colleges than the “usual suspect” elite schools on the Northeast Corridor Amtrak line. Rather than a linear climb to the top of a ranking system, I try to get families to see the college process as a journey of self-discovery and ideal matching (like a marriage!).

    To combat Race to Nowhere stress, I would recommend the following to American students:

    1. Dial up true love of academics (achievement will follow) from early childhood on. Academics are not surprisingly the most important factor in college acceptance. And academic focus ensures success once a student arrives at college.

    2. Dial down obsessive extra-curriculars. They interfere with academics. At the same time, they burn kids out, allowing little time for family recreation, social and personal development. Most students do not get into college based on sports or performing arts, and do not even continue to pursue these activities in college. This is not to say kids shouldn’t enjoy extra-curriculars, they should just beware of crazed involvement.

    3. Give some thought to what you’re really good at and might want to do with your life. Some of my students have given more thought to what position they want to play on the soccer team than what they might want to major in when they get to college. Sometimes by the time a kid knows what he likes, he has already spent a fortune on a few years of college and his school doesn’t even offer the programs he wants. So he takes an extra year to graduate, or has to start over.

    4. Not everybody belongs in a liberal arts program. Some kids will thrive and contribute more to the world if they are trained for their true calling in a technical institute, a fine arts program, or a career college. The four year generalist model doesn’t work for everybody, and our society only needs so many anthropologists.

    Thanks for a great post on an important subject!

  2. Alice Kleeman January 22, 2011 at 3:33 am #

    Lynn, I am 100% with you about Race to Nowhere. The implication is that students must force themselves into a frenzy if they want to go to a “good” college. Even the few colleges considered “good” by prestige- and selectivity-focused families are not asking students to drive themselves into the ground in order to be admitted! My most successful students had a very balanced, healthy, happy high school experience, and weren’t trying to impress anybody. (By successful, I mean they had many college options in senior year.)

    I have issues with the lack of personal responsibility assumed by both students and parents in the movie. As a parent, if my child said, “Mom, I really want to be in the school play,” I would say to her, “Gee, that sounds great! Which of the activities you’re involved in now would you like to put aside so you can be in the play without undue exhaustion and stress?” Parents do not have to allow their students to overdo; they should be on the front line in helping their kids make sanity-supporting decisions. That’s called … parenting! Jump off the crazy train; it’s not that hard to do.

    I have the same issue with students who say they are burdened and stressed by taking five APs or participating in day-and-night activities. Stop! You have choices! You can choose sanity. If you blame colleges for your crazy-making decisions, let me assure you that I don’t know a single college that expects you to do this, not even the most highly selective colleges. And there are hundreds of colleges around the country where students can earn an amazing education that are delighted to admit healthy, balanced kids. ALL colleges hope to admit healthy, balanced kids.

    Students who are seriously overdoing and paying a price for it will definitely not be happy at colleges where they’ll feel they have to continue that pattern.

    I was sad to see the blame-throwing that marked this film. Parents and students: take personal responsibility for your own health and sanity. You will not be sorry. And you will have excellent college options, too.

    Sorry for the rant . . .

    Alice Kleeman
    Menlo-Atherton High School

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