Forget about March madness, writes Pia de Jong. April is the craziest month for high school students and their parents. College admissions is an insanely stressful game, she writes in the Washington Post.
De Jong and her husband moved to the U.S. from the Netherlands in 2012. Their 15-year-old son is being courted by colleges already. Friends urged them to visit a private college counselor, who asked the sophomore about his goal in life. He doesn’t have one.
His interests range from learning more about the stars to studying card tricks, from a fascination with the idea of infinity to playing Xbox.
Afterward, the consultant said: “Your son has to learn to focus more. He is just drifting through life.”
De Jong wants her son to have a chance to drift, “mess around, make mistakes” and enjoy himself. “The American education system in general, and the college admissions process in particular, seem intent on creating cautious, careerist adults-in-training,” she writes.
The Dutch do it differently.
When children are about 12, at the end of their primary education, they sit for a national exam. Based in part on their results, about 20 percent of them go on to a secondary education that prepares them for a research university. The rest follow a curriculum geared toward trade schools.
. . . if you’re on the university track, you can go to almost any university you want. . . . There is little stress, and thanks to government support, it is affordable for just about everyone.
De Jong admits the Dutch system “closes off opportunities early.” Late bloomers can try to switch to the university track, but it’s not easy.
Determining children’s futures based on a test taken at age 12 . . . That’s not a minor glitch.
All U.S. high school graduates can go to college, if they wish. Nearly half go to low-cost, open-admissions community colleges. Another large group go to unselective or not-very-selective colleges and universities. Only the best students — perhaps the top 20 percent — are competing for places in very selective colleges and universities. They may not get into a top-choice school, but they get in somewhere. (Can they afford it? Good students usually can get scholarship aid.)
For those trying to get into elite colleges, the system may favor “cautious careerists” over mistake-making drifters. But at least non-conformists aren’t put on the trade-school track at 12.