It's Not a Race: A Letter to My Daughter Before College

I'm proud of how bravely you've survived the one-size-fits-all pressure cooker that American high school has become. But now that you're preparing to go away to college, I only hope your university experience won't be more of the same.
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Dear Jamey,

As I watched you accept your high school diploma last weekend, looking self-assured and happy with a lei of orchids around your neck, I thought about how hard you've worked -- to arrive at this moment with such a clear sense of yourself.

You are smart, soulful and compassionate, and have loved working with animals since you were barely big enough to walk. But you had to struggle against a system that nearly ground that passion out of you. You stayed up late too many nights and worked through too many weekends to get through heaps of homework that bore little relevance to your growth or goals -- but was supposedly your ticket to college. While keeping up with all the competitive tests and impersonal lessons, you still sought out chances to do the kind of hands-on learning that engages you more (dissections, not just anatomy diagrams). At times the endless race left you exhausted, alienated and discouraged about becoming a veterinarian. But you held onto the dream. And when everyone in our town obsessed about Ivy League admissions above all else, you swallowed hard and stuck to your own definition of success.

I'm proud of how bravely you've survived the one-size-fits-all pressure cooker that American high school has become. But now that you're preparing to go away to college, I only hope your university experience won't be more of the same. Unfortunately, I have reason to fear.

I got my first inkling that college had become just another lap in the achievement race when you and I toured campuses across the country last year. I was thinking about how I hoped college would be so different than high school for you -- a place where you can open your mind to new subjects, nurture your unique abilities and build your own vision of who you can become. Then I heard admissions officials boast about admitting classes filled with "superscoring" SAT and ACT takers. They touted the quarter system as an opportunity to double or triple major. Schools that weren't Ivies promised that you could do an exchange semester at Columbia or MIT.

Perhaps most troubling was learning about the staggering attrition rates among hopeful science majors, like you. It turns out that nationwide about 40 percent of students who start off studying science end up changing majors or getting no degree at all. How come? The New York Times identifies a key factor as the "math-science death march," a gauntlet of dry and difficult calculus and chemistry classes that underclassmen struggle through in anonymous lecture halls with little support. Plus, the disheartening dropout numbers extend beyond science; one study found that just 56 percent of students who begin a bachelor's degree program in any subject complete it within six years.

I felt dismayed. We tout college as the height of our educational experience and the foundation for a successful life. But do colleges today provide the learning environment to develop the diverse set of creative problem solvers our world needs? Do they foster the happy, healthy, well-rounded adults that I hope you and all children will grow into?

I did find bright spots, such as Olin College in Massachusetts, which encourages students to take creative risks their first semester by forgoing grades altogether. Here engineering students dive into collaborative, hands-on projects rather than compete against each other for top test scores. The freshmen I met described their experience as "liberating," while upperclassmen told me they still remember what they learned from past projects.

But on the whole, I discovered that college has become more competitive and less meaningful. As the economy has transformed into a marketplace for creativity and collaboration, most colleges calcified. Hiring managers across the country report that recent grads lack the real-life skills, like organization, listening and leadership, to do a good job. Like high school, too many colleges remain a race, not a journey, a litany of lectures and papers and written exams, a credential for your résumé rather than a chance to blossom.

So while I made the documentary Race to Nowhere to sound the alarm about the out-of-control academic pressure that's sapping the life out of too many high school kids like you, I finally had to face this unhappy fact: it's happening in college, too.

But I'm sounding pessimistic, and that couldn't be further from how I truly feel. I'm actually incredibly hopeful about your next four years, and your life beyond. You can follow the lockstep program, or you can make college your own. And with my eyes wide open about American college today, here's I what I advise:

Leave behind the frantic habits of mind and assumptions about achievement that our school system has ingrained in you for years. Remember that grades and test scores don't define you. Make deep thinking and problem solving a core part of your skills. Find opportunities to construct knowledge, not just consume it. Keep your distance from the competitive culture that breeds perfectionism.

As you explore new avenues and meet challenges, seek out the support and hands-on learning experiences you need. Expand your definition of learning beyond test prep, and keep in mind that some of your most lasting lessons will come not in a classroom but at office hours with a professor you admire or in late-night conversations with diverse friends on your dorm floor. And work hard, yes, but find balance. Value health over productivity. Make time every day to eat and sleep well, to socialize, to breathe.

I believe your choice of schools already reflects your hard-won knowledge of yourself. University of Denver is a smaller school and a closer-knit community, with professors known to put teaching before research. Its campus-wide emphasis is on learning by doing, via projects and fieldwork and service.

For all its flaws, college is still an amazing opportunity for growth as a thinker, friend and whole human being. So as you pursue your dream of a career caring for animals (now there's a skill more useful than taking standardized tests!), never forget that there are many paths to get there.

You've survived the slings and arrows of a school system obsessed with only one narrow vision of success. Now stay true to the strong and talented self you've worked so hard to find, and show the world what college is really for.

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