College Sweepstakes

June 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, essayist Anne Taylor Fleming considers the pressures on high school seniors facing graduation.

SPOKESPERSON: Welcome the members of the class of 2002 as they begin their graduation ceremony. (Applause)

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Well, it’s that time of year again: Graduation. From the beauteous, well-endowed college prep schools to the tough, graffiti-stained inner city public high schools, the graduates now toss their mortarboards into the air and take their leave, having survived the most intense, hard-core, test-taking, grade-grubbing, college entrance sweepstakes in the history of the country.

I’ve watched many of these kids, sons and daughters of friends, and read about them in the news magazines and newspapers, and there can be only one conclusion: This is heartbreaking madness. Never have so many sought so few spots in such highly esteemed institutions. Harvard, for example, had 19,605 applications for 1,650 places, leaving a whole host of disappointed applicants — you can do the math — not to mention their equally, if not more, disappointed parents. The competition for college is now frenzied, fraught, and fierce, and not just the Ivy Leagues. Even my alma mater, the University of California, is now very tough to get into, despite its size.

SPOKESPERSON: The SAT One, reasoning test, will begin this morning.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: For many students, high school has now become a full-tilt, resume-building rat race– kids scrambling to widen their appeal by singing, dancing, doing charity work, running the school newspaper, or competing on the water polo team, all the while maintaining that precious 4.0 average, while cramming for the SATs, not to mention the brainstorming sessions with the on-site college counselors.

All this pressure doesn’t start in junior or senior year. If you don’t believe me, just listen to the parents around you whose kids have just been through the application process — not for college, for kindergarten. Push, push, push, push, push. The slightest evidence of dance or musical talent and the toddlers are whisked into tutus or music classes. (Young kids singing) The slightest evidence of swimming or diving talent and it’s into the pool.

By high school, the kids are slotted into their sport of choice. You can’t fool around here, no dabbling in baseball or volleyball. Choose your sport, get good at it, or get out. All this frenzy, of course, applies to the eager-beaver grads with the driven parents, the lucky ones, if you want to look at it that way. Because the flip side of the college sweepstakes is in so many ways sadder still– all the poor and working class kids who now can’t afford college at all.

A couple of troubling new national reports show how public colleges, which educate more than three-quarters of the country’s students, are now increasingly out of reach for many. State and federal aid have not kept up with the rising tuition, and students and families must now take on major debt to buy their way into higher education. That’s keeping many students from applying to college at all and prematurely slotting them into low-paying dead-end jobs.

In short, college, the great American equalizer, is increasingly the preserve of the well-off, those harried hyper-achievers who can afford it. Do we really want this? Is any of this ultimately good? No question the emphasis of the last few years has been away from government health and on to personal responsibility. You want college? You should pay for it. Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for yourself.

SPOKESPERSON: Megan Clayson. ( Applause )

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I find my heart this graduation season a little bit heavy– too much pressure on too many, way too soon, and too little help for the others who will fall by the educational wayside. It just seems nutty, a divide that will resonate long after these particular graduates toss their mortarboards into the air and give their sentimental good- byes to each other.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.