The Price of High School Success

Last week I was talking to the college counselor at my son’s high school about research findings that suggest that Asian students face much greater odds in getting into Ivy League and other elite institutions.

During our conversation, the counselor took a hardback from his book-lined room and suggested I read it. School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School, which was written by Edward Humes, a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Humes spent a year at Whitney High School, which most people in California have never heard of, but which typically ranks at or near the top of the heap of public high schools in California and the nation. (If the measures of success are focused on test scores and college attendence.)

Unlike a lot of highly successful high schools, which ships just about everyone off to four-year colleges, the nondescript campus is not located in an affluent suburb. Cerritos is a gritty community that is largely Asian and the parents in this community admirably want their children to succeed. Many Asians, as well as Indian families, flock to this area from around the country and even the world in hopes of getting their children into this highly selective school. Kids must pass an entrance test to be considered for admission.

I spent yesterday reading School of Dreams on the plane as my son Ben and I flew back to my hometown of St. Louis as we embark on the last college tour. Ben’s visiting Knox, Beloit, Lake Forest And Lawrence in that order before he compiles his final list of colleges and plunges into the application process.

I had mixed feelings when I read about Whitney High where students often begin their days at dawn and end long after midnight because that’s how long it takes to cram in time for back-breaking homework loads and extra-curriculars that kids seem to select to impress the prestigious schools their parents expected them to attend. In the book I encountered an abbreviation I had never seen before: HYP (Harvard, Yale, Princeton), which along with UCLA and Berkeley, are the educational holy grails that many of these stressed-out kids are pursuing.

The Whitney kids demonstrate a tremendous work ethics as they take on an ungodly number of Advanced Placement and honors classes in pursuit of a killer GPA. Just reading what these kids must do made me tired though an ability to work hard will certainly be helpful when they reach college. I suspect, however, that college will be easier – regardless of where they attend – than Whitney. I remember talking to the mother of a recent valedictorian at the private girls’ school where my daughter graduated in 2007—an pressure cooker school, but not as intense as Whitney — and she told me that her daughter had more free time at Yale than she ever did in high school.

What I found sad was that these kids seemed to be measured by their parents – and perhaps by their peers – by what university they ultimately attended. But beyond that, too many parents wanted their children to pursue medicine, law, business or other majors they considered prestigious. Whitney’s art teacher complained that parents were forbidding their children from taking art – or heaven forbid – majoring in art because it wasn’t worth pursuing. I was stunned to read that a parent threw a child’s art portfolio, which had taken a year to assemble, out in the street and forbade her from retrieving it for many hours.

I find this obsession with earning perfect grades is sad and the over-the-top work load insane. Kids don’t need to abandon their teenage years to get into college. About 70% of high school students get into their first choice and the students at Whitney could easily sashay into nearly any college or university they desired. But when parents believe that only a dozen or so schools are worth pursuing that’s a heart-breaking problem.

Further reading:

Finding A Great College in Your Region

What’s the Matter With Harvard?

College That Welcome Minority Students

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and the college blogger for

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