The Failure of the US Education System

The Failure of the US Education System

How America's college admissions process failed us all

I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday and he mentioned that he needs to retake his SAT from three weeks ago. I asked him why, here was the answer:

I didn’t get a high enough score. I was 50 points off from what I need for my top schools.

Now, to most of us who grew up in the US, this doesn’t really seem bizarre. We’ve been told college is a simple formula: GPA, SAT/ACT, president of a club or two, 200 community service hours; you get the point.

But, while we’re caught up in what society has been telling us to do, not many of us have stopped to actually take a look at what this means.

Do we really believe that those 50 points have the potential to change our lives?

The Goal

The goal of an education is to learn.

The Enlightenment led to history’s greatest advances in technology, philosophy, science and literature, all because of the idea that the mind is prerequisite to growth. The more you read, listen, write, and absorb, the farther you go in society. Knowledge was the currency.

But centuries later, we’ve forgotten that.

As of 2017, 1 out of every 2 high school graduates report feeling unprepared for the future after high school, despite having spent the past 18 years in the education system.

The truth is: the American education system has strayed so far from its original goal of teaching. Students are no longer optimizing to learn; they’re optimizing to get into a good college.

Artificial Value

In our quest to achieve the university of our dreams, we lost sight of doing what truly matters to us. We’ve might’ve joined an activity due to interest, but as we’ve advanced through the grades, we’ve replaced our intrinsic motivations with extrinsic ones. When you’ve been taught that every action has the purpose of getting into college, it’s harder to find meaning in just doing something because you enjoy it, and much more difficult to persuade yourself to do it.

Don’t believe me, here’s proof: the star debater, lacrosse player, violinist, and the student council president. They don’t continue their careers into college. When high school ends, so does their motivation. The activities were a means to an end but it’s no longer going to help get them into college. They won’t step up to become captain or be able to write an essay about it; their career is over.

Outside of extracurriculars, students throw away their teenage years succumbing to the stress and anxiety of grades. Students get panic attacks and depression and whole months where they feel that life isn’t worth living because almost all of it was devoted to stressing about school. Because for some reason, getting anxiety is a reasonable byproduct of getting A’s.

As a result of pursuing application fluff, The American Academy of Sleep Medicine finds that 73% of teens get less than the healthy amount of sleep. The American Psychological Association finds that teens, on average, report similar stress levels to that of adults (yes, the same adults who work a full time job, pay bills, and care for a family).

We Lost The Ability to Learn

Even if we’re getting loading up on the fluff and getting straight As, most students aren’t truly learning. Because learning isn’t the goal; it’s test grades, and the “golden transcript.”

Our education system rewards the “lazy” students that just BS and memorize their way through. We reward the students who never absorbed the knowledge, but learned the game of test-taking early on.

This isn’t the fault of the teachers. The teachers, no matter how passionate or knowledgeable they may be about their subject, are told to teach students the material well enough to get an A on the exam, since that is the metric of intelligence.

We don’t ever get the opportunity to pursue subjects that matter for our interests. In English, they teach you how to avoid a comma splice but not the art of debate and negotiation. In math, you learn how to derive f(x) but fail to explain how loans are calculated and banks function.

There’s nothing to teach students how to be a better learner, or how to be a better listener, or heck, even how to file a tax return. Most adults don’t even remember what they learned in high school.

To increase the burden further, we emphasize the value of the SAT or ACT standardized tests. These exams are at best mediocre predictors of college success yet they are tremendously consequential.

The tests, made for testing college preparedness, fail to do exactly that. Zara Kornfield writes that a major issue with these tests is that more than measuring college readiness, they measure financial stability. While this may not be an intended result, students from households which earn less than $20,000 per year on average scored around 400 points lower on the 2014 SAT than students from households which made $200,000 per year.

College Is A Societal Construct

Despite all of this, I’ll bet that most of us never questioned the system. We’re told from a young age that where we go to college locks in our fate.

Getting into a good college gets you a high-paying job. You’re set for life.

Heard that before? Parents push their children to achieve at exceptional levels. While in some cases this can facilitate children’s achievement, in many cases, parents’ unrealistic expectations create pressure and foster in their children. Students lose sight of their own wants and needs in order to perform to the caliber of their parents. And we can’t blame our parents either.

The Ivies and other top schools have all sold this idea of needing them to achieve success.

And we’re drinking the koolaid. As written by Dr. Robert Weisbuch, speaking at the graduation ceremony of Concord Academy last spring, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky urged upon high school graduates “the difficulty which you have been undertaking, to please admissions committees and colleges, that is a stupid difficulty.”

“Where you go to college is not important,” Pinsky insisted in his talk. “It is a stupid distinction.” It is stupid, at least, to place so much weight upon it when in reality so much of what happens is up to the individual. The self-starting, energetic student at a community college will learn more and do better afterwards than a sloth attending Harvard or Yale. When we look at the college affiliations of successful business people or writers or scientists or you name it, nearly all hold degrees from schools that are not ranked in an asinine Top Ten created by a failed news magazine. There can be and should be no escape from the fact that your destiny depends not on your trappings but on your creativity, integrity, and sweat.

Remember that Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates all dropped out of college.


So, what I am telling you to do? As a high-school student, I go through the pressure too. There’s not much we can do to fix the broken system. But, I promise you that you don’t need to feed into it.

Most colleges themselves have recognized the shortfalls of the existing process. This is why we often see the 4.0 GPA, 36 ACT, and president of 6 clubs student gets rejected from their top schools. They’re just like everyone else.

Don’t be another transcript.

I urge you to find your passion and lean into it. Take an unconventional path. Differentiate yourself by spending time on what matters to you. Even if you don’t get into the college of your choice, you’re ahead of everybody else because you built a foundation for your future after college.

Colleges look for the student that shows them the best potential for career success. Why not start early? Begin exploring your options and identifying your niche.

Of course, I’m not telling you to neglect school either. Despite it’s flaws, there’s still things you can learn from your 18 years there. But, your career doesn’t depend on how many APs you take or your SAT score.

But the most important takeaway you can get from this article is to not spend four years for an admissions officer to look at your application for ten seconds. Yeah, just let that set in.

Your face after realizing what I just said.

But, what do I know? I’m just another high-school student dealing with the existential crisis that is high school. However, I’ll leave you with a quote from someone you’ll definitely believe, Mark Twain:

“Some people get an education without going to college. The rest get it after they get out.

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