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As an organization that focuses on the mental health and well-being of teens and young adults, including the millions of high school and college students across the country, we at The Jed Foundation (JED) are alarmed at the college admissions scandal that continues to unfold in the news. The FBI and IRS investigations now underway will examine how widespread such corruption and bribery may be in the college admissions process.
Many people are of course now trying to figure out how this happened. How did so many people game the system in such an intricate manner and not get caught until now? This is an important question. But there’s an equally important question to be asked about why this happened. Why is the obsession with getting into an elite school so extreme that people are willing to commit fraud and possibly go to jail over it? What does it tell us about the undue pressure we are putting on our teens and young adults, and what might it be doing to their mental health?
There’s no question that this kind of pressure is on the rise and it can’t be good for teens and young adults. Our apparent prevailing assumption as a society that going to an elite college is the key to success in adult life may be doing more harm than good in some cases, especially when you consider that for most young people earning potential is not significantly impacted by where they go.
More important than where they go to school might be what they do when you get there. A recent survey conducted by Challenge Success found that college selectivity is not a reliable predictor of student success, job satisfaction, or well-being. The key factor for success in college was instead found to be a student’s engagement in college, both academically and otherwise. Students who are deeply engaged in the overall campus community are much more likely to thrive academically, find high-paying jobs, and succeed in life after college. Similarly, the American College Health Association has routinely found that factors having the greatest negative effect on academic performance among college students include stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties.
What these studies tell us is that what might really determine success in adult life has a lot less to do with where people go to college, and a lot more to do with how they feel and engage when they are there. Do they feel connected to faculty, staff, and their peers? Are they engaged academically and socially? Do they feel at ease? The answers to these questions might be more important than most people think.
This is why choosing a college that’s a “good fit” — not only based on prestige or academics — is of such significance. A “good fit” school is one in which the student feels comfortable, engaged, and at home. Balancing prestige or selectivity of the school with other factors, such as school character and available support services, is extremely important. At JED, we developed Set to Go to help teens, with support from family and educators, prepare emotionally for the transition out of high school into college and adulthood. This includes putting college in perspective and choosing a school that’s a “good fit” for you. The Right Fit Quiz on Set to Go encourages students to think more expansively about what makes a school a good fit for them. Here are some of the key elements to consider:
- Size and Location: Would you be more comfortable in an intimate setting, or do you like a large, bustling atmosphere? Do you want to be close to home or farther away? Do you want access to an urban environment, or are you more comfortable in a more rural setting?
- Cost and Finances: Does the school’s tuition feel manageable? What kind of financial aid options are available? Are work-study opportunities available? Make sure you understand the terms of renewal and whether the amount of aid provided can change if life circumstances change.
- School Character: Some schools “hold your hand” more and some leave you to figure things out on your own. What kind of environment is best for you? What do students tend to do for fun? Does it match how you like to spend your free time?
- Extracurricular and Support Services: Find out what kinds of clubs and social activities the school offers. Do they meet your personal, social, emotional, and cultural needs? What kind of community are you looking for? Make sure to pay attention to what kinds of academic and emotional support services are available at the school. This can vary widely school to school.
- Resources: What kind of academic support is available at the school? What are the health and mental health services like? What kind of supports and services are available for students with learning disabilities?
If we really want to set our teens and young adults up for success, we should not be focusing on getting them into a particular elite college. Instead, we should be encouraging them to think holistically about their college choice and to understand what environment will allow them to be the most engaged and healthy. This will make the most difference in their lives both in college and beyond.
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