The January 2016 release of "Turning the Tide," a report shepherded by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and representing the input of colleges nationwide, was an important step forward in articulating the excesses, and stark inadequacies, of the college admissions process. Intended to de-stress student applicants, the report's recommendations address such things as standardized-test scores, which many colleges already treat as optional; advanced placement courses, which not every school offers; and a quality over quantity approach to extracurricular activity and service.
All of that can't come a moment too soon.
A survey by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation identified school, including concerns about college, as a key adolescent stressor. In addition, the 2013 survey of stress by the American Psychological Association revealed that teens are experiencing levels of stress on par with, and in some cases exceeding, that of adults. During the school year, young people say that their stress levels exceed what they think is healthy. The report also highlights feelings of being overwhelmed, sad, depressed and tired.
As Sargunjot Kaur, a high school student writer, explains, "It's like a pressure cooker in here! No doubt, school is tough. For some, it's the worry of being able to get enough credits to graduate high school, while for others it's being able to get a 4.0 GPA and get into Stanford. No matter what our goals are, we all struggle with a tremendous amount of stress and pressure."
Is it any wonder that many students show up at college already being treated for mood disorders? Indeed, 86 percent of college counseling center directors note a steady increase in the number of arriving students on psychiatric medication, according to a 2014 report from the National Survey of College Counseling Centers. The same report states that 94 percent of counseling directors say they've seen an increase of students with severe psychological disturbances, including anxiety disorders, clinical depression and self-injury issues.
To grasp the size of the problem, consider a new report from Penn State University that quantifies the almost crippling demand for mental health services on college campuses. Discussing the report, Tyler Kingkade, senior editor and reporter for the Huffington Post, states, "Data collected at 139 college and university counseling centers, from 2009-2010 through 2014-2015, reflects 'slow but consistent' growth in students reporting depression, anxiety and social anxiety. And 20 percent of students seeking mental health treatment, the report found, are taking up about half of all campus counseling center appointments."
New York Times Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni, commenting on the Harvard-led report in his piece "Rethinking College Admissions," says, "They're realizing that many kids admitted to top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions. And they're acknowledging the extent to which the admissions process has contributed to this."
Could it be that the transition to college may be especially difficult for those who have simply been swept out in a riptide of societal - and perhaps parental - expectations, devoid of meaningful opportunities to identify and sample such passions?
Marie Schwartz, founder and CEO of TeenLife Media, recently told the Boston Globe, "Research shows that today's students are not emotionally prepared for college and life in general. They spend too much time in front of screens and aren't developing the skills that employers want. The point is getting kids out of their comfort zone when they're teenagers, so it's not such a shock later on. The upside is they can find something they had never thought about, and the experience could change their life." TeenLife Media provides the Web's most comprehensive directory of STEM, gap year, pre-college, overnight summer and community-service programs for students in grades 7-12.
As Schwartz suggests, some of those experiences could be service oriented. That is the primary goal of The Aspen Institute's Franklin Project, which envisions a time when a year of service becomes a cultural expectation for all young Americans. The Franklin Project states, "We're focused on promoting a year of service as a civic rite of passage because it will connect individuals to something bigger than themselves and to the idea that citizenship requires more from each of us than is currently expected. A generation of Americans spending a year in full-time service will unleash a reservoir of human capital to tackle pressing social challenges, unite diverse Americans in common purpose, and cultivate the next generation of leaders."
In his article "How America Can Get Its Mojo Back," Ron Fournier, senior political columnist and editorial director at the National Journal, quotes former Marine and current Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton as saying, "A lot of thinkers out there much smarter than I would say the reason we can't do [big] things ... is because we don't have national service, because we don't have a common experience."
Service-oriented or not, gap year programming is becoming an increasingly popular vehicle to bridge the important divide between high school and college.
A May 2014 TIME article, "Why Your High School Senior Should Take a Gap Year," acknowledges that the concept can be unnerving for some parents, "especially for those who have carefully cultivated a cradle-to-college track for their children. Many fear that once their son or daughter veers away from a formal education, they won't go back." Nevertheless, it offers some reassurance, stating, "Many educators tout taking a gap year, saying that kids who step off the academic treadmill after high school to work, travel, volunteer or explore other interests are more mature when they arrive at college and more engaged in their education going forward."
One such educator, Richard Enemark, Ph.D., a longtime independent-school head, agrees that it can be hard to convince parents of the value of gap year programming, telling me, "They don't always realize that a different path can actually enhance their child's ultimate success. In fact, gap year experiences often present an enormous advantage in credentialing young people in ways that are both emotionally and financially significant."
To that point, a June 2015 Washington Post parenting piece, "Want to Help Kids Succeed in College? Let Them Take a Gap Year," quotes Parke Muth, a college admissions consultant, as saying of a gap year experience, "'It's an investment in the whole person,' one that allows kids to develop the maturity, independence and self-reliance necessary to make the most of a college education."
Making the most of a college education. Perhaps it's as simple as tides and timing to best prepare young people for what lies ahead.