Extra Credit or Extra Stress?

by Risa Green


I saw the movie Race to Nowhere last week, and boy, did it scare the crap out of me. If you haven’t seen it yet, the brief synopsis is that our kids are stressed out to the point where it’s become dangerous. They’re in this vicious cycle where they’re worrying about getting into a good college so that they can get into a good law/medical/engineering school so that they can get a good job so that they can have a nice house and support a family and take nice vacations, and in order to achieve it they pile on AP classes and involve themselves in dozens of extracurricular activities. They end up with six hours of homework a night, which they can’t start until they get home from their activities at 7 or 8 pm, and so they stay up until two in the morning doing homework, they’re sleep deprived, they don’t eat enough, they have no time with their families or friends, and they realize that they have to cheat in order to keep up. We learn, horrifically, about a thirteen year-old girl who killed herself because she wasn’t doing well in math.


For five years I worked as a college counselor at a high powered high school in Los Angeles, and I can tell you from first-hand experience that what I saw in this movie is exactly what I saw every single day in my job. The pressure that these kids are under to succeed – self-imposed, imposed by friends, imposed by parents, imposed by society – is simply unbearable. Every educator knows this. Every college admissions officer knows this. And yet, nobody seems to want to do anything to stop it.


The truth of the matter is, though, that not every student is meant to go to a highly selective college. There are lots of really fantastic kids out there with good grades and solid SAT scores and resumes packed with extracurricular activities. But most of those kids will struggle to get into a “name” school. And I’m not just talking about the ivies. I’m talking about Emory and Washington University in St. Louis. I’m talking about the University of Michigan, NYU, and USC. When I started college counseling in 1999, if you were from Los Angeles and you had a 3.3 and an 1100 on your SATS, Boston University was about as safe a bet as you could make. By the time I left in 2004, if you wanted BU, you needed to have a 3.7 and a 1300 just to have a shot.


There are a lot of reasons why it’s harder to get in today – for one thing, there are more college-aged kids today than there were in 1989, which means that there are more kids applying to college, which means that colleges can be pickier about who they admit. And, as an article in the New York Times this week explains, colleges are actively recruiting more applicants, simply because it makes them look better, which further allows them to reject more kids. But the bottom line is that, as parents, we need to understand that there are plenty of unsung colleges out there that that can give our children quality, top-notch educations. Just because you’ve never heard of them doesn’t mean they’re bad. I had a colleague once who used to say that you shouldn’t worry if you’ve never heard of a particular college, because they’ve never heard of you, either.



Thank you for your post on this movie. You have done a good job at highlighting how we can support our children as their parents. I am hoping that our country is ready for a true revolution in education that is based on teaching our children to think critically and to develop a love of learning.


Thanks Risa! College admissions is a scary business right now. I work as a transfer adviser at a university and I've seen what happens to students who choose a college just for the name and not for the correct fit. It's not pretty!