Than Healy, head of school at Menlo School in Atherton, asked those who came to hear a Nov. 15 discussion about college admissions to stand if their children had been experiencing "dangerous levels of sleep deprivation, non-ordinary difficulty with emotional regulation," or had "dropped a class or activity they cared deeply about because it wouldn't fit with their idea about what colleges want."
Much of the crowd stood.
"If anyone in our child's life came along and said they'd try to deprive them of health, vitality or happiness we'd fight like crazy, as parents, to prevent that," he said. Instead, by hiring tutors, enrolling students in test prep courses, and hiring outside admissions counselors, "I think we're complicit" in amplifying the stress, he said.
Alluding to the old story that says a frog that would immediately jump out of boiling water won't notice a gradual rise in temperature in time to escape death, Mr. Healy noted: "I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to say that the frogs in our community are boiling, and it's sad that some of them are dying."
Families seem to believe their children need to get into a selective elementary school in order to get into a selective middle school in order to get into a selective college "in order to end up with a selective life," he said. "That's as bizarre as anything else, and yet nobody wants to get off the treadmill first," he said.
The panelists Mr. Healy was introducing, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, Harvard educator Richard Weissbourd and Challenge Success founder Denise Pope, had some ideas about how to power off the treadmill. They were part of a Common Ground program called "Turning the Tide: Redefining the College Admissions Process."
Common Ground, a coalition of 31 local schools with 15,000 families, sponsored the program as part of its 15th anniversary celebration
Different definitions of success
Ms. Pope said somehow students no longer seem to have the same definitions of success that their parents do.
She says that when her organization asks parents how they define success for their children their top answers are: happiness, fulfillment and a good spouse.
Ask their children, and the answer is quite different: "The first thing they say is money, and college and test scores and grades," Ms. Pope said.
Mr. Weissbourd said other studies have found the same thing. In one, 50,000 students were asked to rank the importance of being a caring person, being a happy person and achieving success. Nearly 80 percent put achievement or happiness first with only 20 percent choosing caring as most important.
"We are concerned about the messages that kids are getting from adults about what matters in life," he said.
Concerned enough that he authored a report titled "Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through the College Admissions Process."
The report, which has been endorsed by officials from 120 colleges and universities, suggests changes in the college admissions process that could emphasize the importance of caring for others while giving students who can't afford tutors or counselors or expensive foreign community service projects a chance to get into competitive colleges.
"You don't really need to go to Costa Rica or Belize," he said. Doing service with a group, not for a group, should be emphasized, he said. "It's the quality of service" that should count, he said.
Among the suggestions in the report are giving students who spend time working to help support their families or providing care for siblings or ill family members credit for that "service." The report also suggests limiting the number of extra-curricular activities students can put on an admissions application to three or four, and limiting the number of advanced placement classes students take to five or six.
The report suggests schools should look at historic data about how well achievement tests such as the SATs predict whether students will succeed in their school, and then use that information to de-emphasize, or eliminate, the use of test scores for admissions.
"The only way to stop an epidemic is by acting collectively," Mr. Weissbourd said. "This is a way that schools and parents can really stand up."
Childhood is not a practice for adulthood, he said. "Adolescence is this incredible time. It's this wonderful time in life and we are turning it into a treadmill."
The risk you're taking by choosing to step off the treadmill "is maybe ... our kids will get into a good state college and not a highly selective college."
The reality is, only about 4 percent of students go to a selective college and less than 1 percent go to a highly selective college, Mr. Weissbourd said.
Mr. Bruni, the author of "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be," said parents and students put far too much emphasis on the value of getting into the most prestigious schools.
But taking a look at the biographies of successful people often shows that what they have in common "is not diplomas from fancy schools," he said.
Instead, he said, the schools that aren't prestigious often aren't even mentioned in a biography. He used Ted Cruz, who went to Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and Marco Rubio, who attended a community college, the University of Florida and the University of Miami School of Law, as an example.
Both, he said, ended up "in the same place," the U.S. Senate, Mr. Cruz representing Texas and Mr. Rubio, Florida.
Good at getting in
Mr. Bruni said that as a visiting instructor at Princeton University he had students whose classroom work was not as good as the essays they wrote to get into the class. "They are good at getting into things," he said, but seem to believe "you rally your energy to get through the door and what happens in the room matters much less."
Some companies, he said, are now avoiding hiring the graduates of the most selective schools "because they want people who will work hard and humbly." Employers say, he said, they "don't want to deal with that sort of entitlement anymore."
Ms. Pope said avoiding the treadmill is the parent's choice. "If you want what's best for your child, if you truly want them to be successful and fulfilled ... you ultimately have the power," she said.
A good fit
Look for schools that are a good fit for a child and that they know they "have a pretty good chance of getting into," she said, and "things get calm."
"You shouldn't have a school on your list that you're not really excited about," she said. Give your children the message that "in our house, we value well-being more than status and (school bumper) stickers."
What's really important, she said, is to "create human beings who will serve to create a better world."
Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success -- A free website and set of online tools designed to inform students as young as ninth graders, who may not have access to college advisers, how to prepare for college.
Nearly 100 colleges and universities have agreed to accept the website's applications for the 2017-18 school year.