Alizabeth Ann Belt is a college-bound, 16-year-old high school
senior from Fort Riley, Kan., and she knows exactly what she wants
for her future.
She is taking six honors classes this year at Junction City High
School in hopes of getting into the University of Kansas to major
in pharmaceutical chemistry. She has good grades. She is in her
school's ROTC program and debate team. After school and activities,
she goes to her part-time job at Pizza Hut until 8 p.m., at which
point she goes home to do her homework. She finishes studying
and goes to bed around 1 a.m., then wakes up early the next morning
and does it all over again.
Sound busy? She is. But she's doing what she feels is necessary
to someday succeed in the real world. Busy to the point of being
overextended and pushed to succeed every step of the way, she
is an example of an overburdened Generation Next student.
"It gets pretty stressful," Belt admitted. "It
gets to the point where I have to just stop once in awhile and
try to give myself time to escape it all, like a night out on
the weekend. I have to be very careful, because there is definitely
a point that you can push yourself to where you break."
Pushed by parents, school councilors, teachers and society at
large, many students like Belt are panicking about their futures
as they scramble to stuff their resumes, excel in athletics and
activities, pile up awards, earn high grades and achieve top scores
on standardized tests. Such pressure, say both students and experts,
derives in part from a make-money mentality over education and
leads, at times, to more cheating in school.
her new book "The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven
Kids," author Alexandra Robbins chronicles the lives of students
like Belt, exploring the pressures that high school kids face
today in the race to succeed. Robbins found what she refers to
as an "overachiever culture" plaguing students.
Robbins specifically follows the lives of students from a Bethesda,
Md., high school as they navigate their way through the SAT and
college application process.
The personal well-being of the students often takes a backseat
to academic success, she found.
"You will find more of the overachiever culture in privileged
areas because they're so driven toward getting into a prestigious
school, but it transcends class lines," Robbins told USA
Today recently. "The goals can be different, but the poor
students I met in eastern New Mexico were just as stressed and
overwhelmed as the students in Bethesda, Md."
Robbins also noted that this pressure can burden students long
after high school. "They were left feeling if they couldn't
be a success by age 25, then they were failures," she said.
National statistics support Robbins' thesis that young American
students tangle with academic stress.
A Florida State University study released in August 2006 suggests
that American teens are under pressure to set higher goals for
themselves, but often those goals are unattainable.
"Unfortunately, the goals of too many teens now outpace
what they are likely to achieve, a problem that can lead to wasted
time and resources, not to mention anxiety and distress,"
the university researchers said in a statement.
Sebastian Lara, a 21-year-old senior at Notre Dame University
originally from Memphis, Tenn., knows firsthand that the stress
and pressure for students in Generation Next can continue for
Lara is a biology major and a Latino studies minor hoping to
attend medical school after graduation. He has taken -- and excelled
at -- the MCAT exam to enter medical school, but he plans to take
a year off and travel.
"I'm taking a year off because of the stress," Lara
said. "Since high school, I've been preparing myself for
this and it's been hard at times. Medical school will be the toughest
Lara said he believes many young adults feel like they are walking
a thin line when it comes to failure and success.
"I know that a lot of students, myself included, feel so
much pressure that they're afraid to mess up even once, like getting
a bad grade," Lara said. "Things are so competitive.
It's like, if you don't get perfect grades in high school, you
might not into a top college. And if you fail an exam in college,
you might not do well in the class, which means you might not
get into a good enough graduate school or get a good enough job
and then bam!, your life plan is ruined. Just like that. I know
people who have had to change the course of their entire life
just because they didn't do well on the MCAT."
Pressure and plagiarism
It seems that all of the pressure to succeed has actually pushed
some kids in the opposite direction. Young adults have grown up
in an age of cell phones and the Internet, both of which have
become tools to help students do their schoolwork in easier, sometimes
A 2002 survey from Rutgers' Management Education Center, which
polled 4,500 high school students, found that 75 percent of these
students had cheated.
Daniel Moran, a 24 year old from Massachusetts who recently graduated
from Springfield College, already has spent over 700 hours in
the classroom as a student teacher. He was surprised at how many
students have taken to cheating.
"The worse cheating that I saw by far was in my honors courses,"
said Moran. "The lazy students or the students in lower level
classes don't cheat nearly as often, perhaps because the same
expectations are not placed on them."
He cited a number of examples, including one student who brought
her cell phone into a test to coordinate answers with her friends.
In another case, he discovered a "very, very intelligent"
student who plagiarized an entire paper from the Internet.
Moran said he felt that students today are often turned into
"automatons trained to cram and memorize information"
and that they often are too stressed and overextended to tackle
any type of assignments that require them to synthesize information
in a new or different way.
more overextended the student is and the more pressure they have
on them, the worse they seem to be at doing assignments that really
challenge them to think and do something they have never done
before instead of just reciting facts," Moran said.
Many schools have strict policies against cheating and plagiarism,
yet students find ways to get around the system.
"We have an honor code at Notre Dame that is strictly enforced
and students in general here are very good," Lara said. "But
you do hear stories that when it comes to crunch time, kids become
desperate or ask friends for old papers. So cheating is definitely
not unheard of and I do think it comes from pressure."
The Internet has added a whole new level to cheating and plagiarizing
work for students in Generation Next, which many experts have
begun to call a "cut and paste culture."
"There are many times where I've gone online and looked
at something and thought, 'Wow, I could just copy it and print
this out,'" said Belt.
Students with a little cash to burn in previous generations used
to pay other students to do their schoolwork for them. Today,
all students have to do is visit a Web site. With a credit card
and a few clicks of a mouse, students can have a pre-written paper
mailed, faxed or even e-mailed to them.
One Web site that offers thousands of essays and research papers
even provides students a free, prewritten essay on the subject
"Academic Cheating" ready to hand in if they are caught
The value of education
Research suggests that many students don't believe their education
is valuable for the same reasons that their parents did decades
ago. While statistics show that students years ago valued a college
education as an enriching experience meant for intellectual growth,
many students in Generation Next view their education as a pit
stop on the road to wealth, fame and success.
A survey from the University of California in Los Angeles which
polled American college freshmen over 30 years found that in 2005,
71 percent of students said that making more money was a very
important reason for them to go to college. About 65 percent said
that they were aiming to get a general education and appreciation
In 1976, the same survey found that only 49 percent of students
found making money an important reason to go to college. Students
gave higher rankings to reasons like "to learn about things
that interest me" (75 percent) and "to become an authority
in my field" (71 percent).
Experts have said that with the changing mentality of students
in regard to the purpose of an education, it is only natural for
students to feel more pressure and stress.
"I'm not just going to college for myself to learn something
new," said Devon Brown, a 16 year old from Washington, D.C.
"I could do that on my own without paying for a degree. I'm
going to college because it's not easy to get by financially today
and you need a college degree to get a well-paying job. It's definitely
the investment, not an intellectual experience that I'm going
"The world is only getting more cut-throat and competitive,"
said Brown. "At some point though, I think students our age
are going to have to step back and examine this process that we
follow to become what society considers successful adults."
-- By Meghan Welsh, Generation Next