A Race to Nowhere Skeptic

Race to Nowhere, a documentary about the stress that college-bound teenagers experience, has gotten a lot of attention.

I first heard about Race to Nowhere a couple of weeks ago after I gave a college presentation to a group of financial advisers and their clients in Irvine, CA. An adviser, who raved about the film, wrote its title on his business card so I wouldn’t forget it.

Tracking down the documentary was on my list of things to do when I saw a story on the film this week on The Today Show.

A Wake-Up Call?

Race to Nowhere is supposed to serve as a wake-up call to the pressures that teenagers are under to excel in high school.  Here’s a blurb from the film’s website that describes the documentary:

Featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people in all types of communities who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

Take a Deep Breath

It sounds really grim. Right? At the risk of commenting on the Race To Nowhere, a movie that I’ve only read about and not seen yet, I do want to inject something here that might prevent some parental hyperventilating.

When I hear students talking about how they are essentially sacrificing their lives to get into colleges, I shake my head. Students don’t have to do this. Close to 70% of high school students get into their first choice colleges and universities. Frankly, that doesn’t sound like an impossible task.

The stress, however,  jumps exponentially when students aim for the most exclusive schools in the country – the Ivies and the top 15 or 20 schools in the liberal arts and national university categories in the US News & World Report college rankings. And the sort of kids who are aiming for these schools tend to be affluent students who attend top suburban high schools and private schools.

Self-Induced Stress?

I think a lot of this college angst is unnecessary. Folks, there are thousands of colleges and universities out there. And they don’t expect a student to take three, four or five AP classes a semester. They don’t expect you to be involved in multiple outside activities. They don’t expect students to ace their ACT or SAT test. These schools want good students, but they don’t expect perfection.

My advice to students is to stop fixating on the same small group of highly recognizable colleges and universities that the most stressed high schools students are typically focused on. And please stop assuming that this tiny cohort of highly elite schools represent the nation’s best!

Broaden your search for colleges and then you can reclaim your teenager years. You will be happier that you did and you’ll probably ultimately find a college that’s a better fit.

Here’s where you can find the Today Show clip on the Race to Nowhere. Here’s where you can find Race to Nowhere screenings in communities across the country.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller and a workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. Follow her on Twitter.

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