More than Tuition: The Hidden Costs of the College Application System | Teen Ink

More than Tuition: The Hidden Costs of the College Application System

November 6, 2022
By Jia-Z SILVER, Mclean, Virginia
Jia-Z SILVER, Mclean, Virginia
9 articles 45 photos 0 comments

Favorite Quote:
How do we forgive ourselves for all the things we did not become?
-Doc Luben


It’s a conversation that comes up endlessly throughout junior and senior year. “So, do you have any favorite colleges?” A friend inquires during lunch. A classmate brags about his grades before class; “I haven't slept for 48 hours,” he laughs. Overnight, it appears that everyone has taken on ten extracurriculars and invested heavily in AP courses. Parents praise how others have accomplished this feat or won that award. They applaud students for taking on excessive amounts of time commitments, even at the expense of their mental health, a troubling normalization that appears during the college application process. Students are increasingly becoming more and more stressed during college applications due to taking on overwhelming amounts of work, societal pressure, and for some, financial problems.

For students, “work” comes in the form of school assignments and ends up in the form of grades. Since grades come first when applying for colleges, it is only natural that students have begun flocking towards 5.0 weighted high-level classes. K-12 Dive finds that over the past decade, there has been over a 59% increase in students who’ve enrolled in Advanced Placement classes. Other classes such as dual credit courses —classes that allow students to have risen in popularity as well, with Education Next of Harvard College discovering that the number of students participating in them rose 68% between 2002-03 to 2010-11 school years. The more 5.0 classes students take, the higher their GPA becomes, which is a crucial part of college applications. However, more difficult classes means more stress, leading to detrimental effects. This has been acknowledged by students, with many high school publications publishing testimonies from those who suffer from academic stress. Lydia Morse of Peninsula High School stated that, “AP classes cause [her] to have mental breakdowns frequently due to the pressure of passing AP exams to get college credits”. For adolescents, these mental issues are unhealthy to say the least, especially for their still developing brains. Yet, the enrollment rates for AP classes still remain high, indicating that students continue to believe they must sacrifice in order to achieve college success. 

The rise in enrollment in these classes aren’t just because of individual students deciding it was necessary. Societal pressures also heavily influence the rates. Students feel increasingly more inclined to take on challenges simply because others are doing so. Like Ruby Weiner of Evanston Township High School puts it, “if other people around you are doing [AP classes], you kind of feel pressured to do that as well”. Not only would students who didn’t take any APs or participate in extracurricular work feel academically isolated from those who do, but they would be socially disconnected from them as well. Students could even develop an inferiority complex, believing that not taking on difficult burdens somehow makes them less than those who do. Therefore, it only makes sense that more and more students do more extracurriculars, take harder classes, and try to match the same level of work with their friends. Some might argue that students are being positively influenced when they decide to attend these classes because their friends are. But doing so means many aren’t prepared for the stress these activities bring— if students who chose to participate in five AP classes and four clubs do so knowing the inevitable mental strain, imagine the struggle of those who do the same just to fit in.

To some, fitting in might seem like a foolish reason to stress oneself out. But just like taking on too much academic work, it is just an additional factor— another straw added to the camel's back. Another factor that is usually overlooked is the financial burden of competitiveness in high school. Taking more AP classes translates to taking more AP tests, and though many schools offer fee waivers, this varies from school to school, especially in lower income schools. Collegeboard, the organization that offers AP classes, set the price per test at about $95, offering a fee waiver which lowers it to $53 for low income students. However, $53 is still impossible for students whose families live paycheck to paycheck. The Washington Post finds that, as of 2018, more than 1.8 million high school students are in schools where at least ¾ of the population is in poverty. Impoverished students are repeatedly faced with financial barriers in order to even get the opportunity for academic success, an added level of stress on top of everything aforementioned. When time comes for college, the enormous amount of standardized test fees and application costs are no doubt overwhelming. 

In fact, Best Colleges explains that 2 in 5 students have been found to worry about their financial future, while Research.com shows how, on average, college application fees range from around $35 to even $60+ per college. For students that can’t afford these, they’re forced to question their future, and even if they’re going to attend college. This would continue the cycle of poverty in their family. Consistent with that fact, they also find that financially stressed low-income students are 2.4 times more likely to drop out of school than middle-income students. The entire application process and the stress that results from it could be completely futile for them, simply because it’s more important that they have the money for food or bills rather than an intangible college education.

Financial worries, societal pressure, and excessive work— these are only three factors that contribute to college application stress, but are enormously impactful. Professor Daniel Keating, of University of Michigan explains that “students react more intensely when their world feels less stable than they expect”, like during college application season, which leads to “behavioral issues, hair-trigger responses, acting out, and an inability to keep things in perspective—or, alternatively, becoming more isolated”. Because they’re more isolated, they tend to keep the causes of the rest of these harmful behaviors to themselves.  As high school students are still in their mental development stage, this can spell disaster for their future selves, as they become used to not sharing their problems. The adults around them therefore assume the students are just acting out randomly, ignorant to the real source of the problem.

Being unaware, adults around students during this time actively encourage this behavior by forcing more work onto them, without seeing the consequences of doing so. But what they don’t seem to realize is that the self-destructive behaviors students learn right now cannot be easily stopped, even after significant events like college applications are over. The mental issues that begin during high school can only compound after, costing far more than the fiscal price of any university.



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