Photo courtesy of MCT Campus
East students wear their labels on their sleeves. Literally. Lululemon and Nike. Vineyard Vines and Patagonia. But obtaining some labels takes more than just dropping $100 on leggings. Some labels take straight A’s, a 36 on the ACT, strong extracurriculars, a 500-word essay about failure and $60,000 in tuition to obtain. For some seniors and juniors at East, Ivy League is the hottest — and hardest to secure — label of the spring 2017 season.
Of 101 East seniors surveyed, 22 percent applied to an Ivy League or one of the other 20 schools with the lowest acceptance rates in the country. Another 66 percent of underclassmen and 44 percent of seniors have at one point considered applying to at least one of those highly competitive schools.
Even with the academic rigor, research opportunities and financial aid that Ivy League and other prominent colleges like Stanford University and Duke University have to offer, the prestige of the institution can be just as appealing.
Senior Carl Young had wanted to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology ever since his father told him it was the best place to fulfill his childhood dream of being an inventor. As he entered high school and started considering college more seriously, he admits he was drawn to the “name brand” value of the school.
“A lot of [schools] have great engineering programs, but a lot of it was opportunities that would be presented after that,” Young said. “[Employers] hear MIT and they think ‘wow’ and they will want you.”
Seventy-four percent of East students surveyed reported feeling pressure to attend a top-tier school. Parents, peers and one’s own self were the top sources of this college-related stress, which psychology teacher Brett Kramer sees in his classroom frequently.
“Just bringing [college] up, makes the nerves and the anxiety palpable, you can just feel it,” Kramer said about discussing college with his juniors and seniors.
However, this hunger for — and stress over — academic prestige, which might seem normal at East, is not matched at other schools across the state or even the country. Last year, a Harbinger survey found 96 percent of the class of 2016 were planning on attending a two or four year college at the time of graduation. But nationally, only one in three high school seniors end up attending any sort of college. Kramer previously taught at Junction City High School and Topeka High School and says he was not prepared for the type of academically-driven students he now teaches in the East IB program.
“Those two schools I taught at, there were a lot students who were happy to graduate,” Kramer said. “College was not on the radar for a lot of those kids. I had on more than a few occasions students quit school second semester senior year.”
Senior Coleman Brockmeier describes East as a bubble where college is thought of a must-do rather than a can-do. So much in fact, that 80 percent of East students surveyed said they would feel like a disappointment or a failure if they did not attend college. Brockmeier also noted that being in the IB program has put him in a bubble within a bubble – one in which the expectation is not just to go to college, but to go to a “great” college.
“[At] the IB banquet at the end of the year, there is a slideshow with everyone’s picture and next to it the place where they will be attending college,” Brockmeier said. ”And it will look like the U.S. News and World Report best college ranking.”
His classmate senior Guanghao Yu also feels like the IB environment puts added pressure to attend prestigious schools, as there is an underlying desire to match or surpass the success of his peers.
“I don’t think it’s a bad, competitive, savage atmosphere, but during the banquet, if everyone else went to Ivy Leagues, and you went to a smaller, lesser-known school, there is a sense of disappointment,” Yu said.
The pressure affects East students of all grades, 53 percent of whom reported having started their college search before junior year. Because more than one-third of East seniors are attending schools with acceptance rates below 60 percent, the pressure to succeed academically is often on the minds of students when they walk into East on the first day of freshman year. This attitude towards education is part of what makes East’s environment so unique, according to Kramer.
“Most of [the students at my previous schools] are worried if they will have food on the table, some of them are worried about taking care of their brother or sister,” Kramer said. “In Junction City, because of the military [base], some of them are worried about if Mom or Dad are going to come home alive from Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m not saying that they don’t care about school, but for some of them, they can’t have that be their top priority.”
And while attending a prestigious school does seem to be a top priority for many East students, when the reality of college decisions and financial aid come into focus, expectations do change. Some students got denied from their dream school and for 79 percent the class of 2017, their families’ financial situation played a role in where they ultimately decided to attend. For many seniors, college decisions mean finally realizing that it’s not about where you go, but what you do when you’re there.
It’s this realization, that might explain why 55 percent of East underclassmen reported that they would be embarrassed to go to a Kansas public university instead of a further away or more selective school, compared to only 30 percent of seniors who feel the same.
“You could get into the best school in the world,” Brockmeier said. “But if you don’t do anything, you aren’t going to stand out to employers when you are applying to jobs; you aren’t going to get as much out of it.”