Templeton Blog

The Danger of Achievement Culture—Thoughts from A College Counselor on the College Admissions Scandal

[fa icon="calendar"] 4/4/19 11:14 AM / by Rebecca Claster

Rebecca Claster

kids-celebrating-graduation-1At this point, we’ve all heard the news about the bribery scandal rocking the world of college admissions. A few wealthy and powerful people, not content with their children’s existing advantages, resorted to criminality to ensure admission to their schools of choice.

Today, I’m exploring the myth of achievement culture, why the prestige of your child’s college choice is less important than you might think, and how you can actually (and legally) help your high schooler prepare for college and life-long success.

The Central Myth of an Achievement Culture

Why was it so important to these parents that their kids attend specific schools that they were willing to engage in dishonest, criminal activity in order to make it happen?

They were operating under the impression that their children’s college options were going to make or break their chance at success and possibly the family reputation.

The widespread cultural misunderstanding at play here is that only the most elite colleges can offer students long-term success. Assumptions about the importance of the college choice drive mass hysteria over standardized testing scores, AP courses, extracurriculars that will look good on an application, and more.

Check out our blog post on What College Admissions Officers Are REALLY Looking  For in a High Schooler to learn more. <>

The Ranking of the College Your Child Goes to Matters a Lot Less Than You Think

The anxieties and assumptions that led to this scandal are deeply misguided.

Derek Thompson, a columnist at The Atlantic, has written several articles tracing the research on the actual value of a degree from an elite institution in terms of life satisfaction, career success, and lifetime earnings. The studies he discusses compare outcomes for students who went to top schools versus students who did not. Here’s how he summarizes the landmark studies on the subject:

“[T]he person you’re becoming at 18 is a better predictor of your future success than the school you graduate from at 22. The takeaway here: Stress out about your habits and chill out about college.”

For parents and families who want a further gut check on college admissions, read the work of Frank Bruni. The long-time columnist for the New York Times chose to spend his college years at UNC Chapel Hill instead of Yale University and wrote a book entitled Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be, challenging the importance of a name-brand college experience.

In a recent NYT article responding to the scandals, Bruni mourns what college admissions mania has done to today’s high school students:

“For these kids, education isn’t an opportunity to wring more meaning from life and make a more constructive impact on the world. It’s transactional. It’s a performance. If the right audience doesn’t clap, there was no point in even taking the stage.”

At Templeton Academy, the last thing we want for our students is a performative experience of education.

Good News: The College Admissions Scandal Gives Us a Chance to Reset Our Values

For the whole education community and for all families, this scandal provides an opportunity to look at our values around achievement culture and the purpose of education.

My interest in this recent news story is personal. My job at Templeton Academy is to help parents and students navigate the process of exploring and applying to colleges. I see first-hand the intensity and anxiety of the college admissions process for families who have bought into the myth of achievement culture.

But here at Templeton Academy I’m a part of a learning community that, while rigorous and focused on college preparation, is student-centered, not prestige and achievement centered. Like our curriculum and our teaching approach, our approach to college counseling focuses on college fit and preparation for life.

Developing Eighteen-Year-Olds That Know Who They Are

The best way to set your high schoolers up for success and help them figure out how to prepare for college in high school is to support them as they figure out who they are.

Students who know themselves and their strengths are much more likely to make the right college choice for their needs and interests, to be prepared to make their way in the world, and to find meaning in what they do.

At Templeton Academy, as a school and as a community, we look deeper than pedigree. We are a college prep school, but our students and their families value learning for its own sake and know that what is at stake is not the short-term challenge of college, but the long-term challenge of life.

The Focus of High School Education Should Be on Preparation for Life

We know that the Templeton Academy model works for college preparation because we’ve seen its success. Our students, both here at Templeton Academy D.C. and at our long-standing partner schools in Canada, have a wide variety of strengths and interests and go on to be successful at all types of colleges.

But we are more proud of who our students are when they graduate then of the schools they are admitted to.

Our graduates all have something in common: a love of learning for its own sake. This love of learning is theirs for life, earned through hard work in experiential classrooms where they explore big questions in discussions and tackle hands-on projects. Whether they choose a small liberal arts college, a prestigious Ivy League university, a big state school, a trade or craft school or military service, we know that our graduates walk out the door with confidence in their own abilities and a desire to develop further knowledge.

Love of learning prepares students for life, especially life in the changing and complex 21st century. This is what high school education should be about: creating environments where students grow into mature, thoughtful, confident people who can choose a school that fits them best and then thrive there. We need to teach students how to prepare for college in high school.

We have strong opinions about how schools should be preparing students for success in the 21st century. Check out our full resource, The 2030 High School Graduate, to learn more!

Explore the Resource

Topics: student-centered learning, lifelong learning

Rebecca Claster

About Rebecca Claster

Rebecca Claster is Templeton Academy’s College Counselor and Service Learning Coordinator. In addition, she is an educational consultant who specializes in college counseling. Rebecca previously taught social studies in New York and SAT and graduate school test prep for the Princeton Review. Becky also worked for 17 years in education and youth policy on Capitol Hill and at the Corporation for National and Community Service. Becky holds a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley, an M.A. in Secondary Education from Adelphi University, and a Certificate in College Counseling from UCLA Extension.

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