Are Colleges Pushing Students to Do Too Much in High School?

Demands over number of college-level courses are distorting students' precollege experience and creating needless stress, says essay capturing support among counselors.

January 15, 2018
 
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The advice is repeated constantly to high school students: take the most rigorous schedule of courses possible to impress colleges to which you apply.

A short essay circulating last week among college counselors who help high school students is urging colleges to put a halt to that advice, and to stop encouraging high school students to outdo one another with the number of Advanced Placement and other college-level courses they take.

"Who started it? 'We expect applicants to take the most demanding schedule available to them'? That is the source of one of the most cruel, and truly unnecessary, abuses of our children. These words send students, so many students, into depression and despair and hopelessness. The words are meant for those elite students who can do it all. The words have the greatest effect, though, a truly pernicious one, on those who aspire to stay in the ballpark for a ball that is likely to forever be out of reach," wrote Scott White, a college counselor in New Jersey who works both in high schools and in a small private practice.

Added White, "I've been in this business since 1981 and have seen a remarkable increase in the number of kids who are just falling apart, checking out, harming themselves and medicating themselves. There are more suicide attempts, students cutting themselves, more hospitalizations, more cases of anorexia and bulimia, every year. And there is every sign that this will continue to rise, unabated, into the foreseeable future."

White posted his essay to an email list of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and fellow counselors have been praising the piece.

In his essay, White said that there is nothing wrong with encouraging students to take challenging courses. But colleges could alleviate stress and still have plenty of information on which to make their decisions if they would learn from 2013 research published in The Journal of College Admission Counseling, he said

That research examined college performance by first-year students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a highly competitive flagship university. The study found a strong correlation between students taking up to five college-level courses in high school and their first-year grade point average. More college-level courses -- up to five -- yielded higher academic performance in college. For students taking six or more college-level courses, gains in first-year GPA were marginal or even negative. The average grades for students who had taken 10 college-level courses in high school were the same as those who had taken only five such courses.

The piece was by Steve Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at Chapel Hill, and Jen Kretchmar, senior assistant director of research in undergraduate admissions at the university. They wrote that Chapel Hill would start telling applicants that it was wise to take up to five college-level courses in high school, and that that number was enough. Some students may want to take more, but they said they wouldn't favor such students over those who took other courses that reflected their academic strengths and interests.

White said it's time for all colleges to do the same thing.

In an interview, White said he was prompted to issue his call for reform by reflecting on the experience of his daughter, who took nine Advanced Placement courses in high school, earning a score of 4 or 5 on each of the tests. White said her experience was "horrific" in that she lost time she might have spent on other activities. "Those courses consumed her life," he said.

White said that, in his advising of high school students, he feels that the pressures of colleges force him to discourage students from taking electives they find interesting or pursuing important interests in favor of taking more AP courses.

Colleges, he said, including colleges that aren't at the very top of the academic and prestige ladder, pretend that they benefit from reviewing a transcript with 10 college-level courses, and that forces high school students to take the courses.

In his essay, he writes, "I don't believe anything pernicious is going on. There is a tiny, tiny number of colleges who can actually 'expect applicants to take the most demanding schedule available to them.' And many others who aspire to be elite repeat the phrase. What could be the damage? The damage is that students are collapsing on the treadmill trying to keep up."

Will higher education change? Will other admissions leaders follow the lead of those at Chapel Hill? Some college leaders have periodically spoken out on the issue. In 2012, Stuart Schmill wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed in which he lamented the trend of students dropping out of meaningful activities just to take more AP courses. He was prompted by his experience meeting high school students at a robotics competition and being told students were afraid to continue in the program unless it awarded AP credit.

But to judge from the reaction White has received, it is unclear whether admissions guidance will change. Since he shared the essay, reaction has been strong on the NACAC list and in direct email messages he has received. But White said he has yet to hear from anyone on the college side of admissions.

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