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Illustration by Hanna BarczykIllustration by Hanna Barczyk

As if in a nightmare, I found myself back in a high-school classroom, wedged into a wobbly desk. A guidance counsellor stood before us, outlining the marks needed to get into some of the country’s top university programs: Engineering, nursing, pharmacy, business. We all glanced at each other nervously. Who had these kinds of grades? I’m sure half of us wanted to duck behind the school for a smoke.

Which is what we would have done, decades ago, when we were in Grade 13 (high school was one year louder, in Spinal Tap terms). Except now, in an odd and unhealthy way, this scene was replaying itself with somehow higher stakes: We were parents, and we’d come to learn about the university and college admission process for our children because the deadline is fast approaching. Around 57 per cent of Canadians have attended postsecondary school, the highest rate among G7 countries. That’s a good thing.

Getting there is less fun.

I’m not sure my parents even knew what universities I’d applied to, all those years ago. They certainly hadn’t hired tutors, postsecondary consultants, or essay ghostwriters to ease my way into college. They couldn’t have afforded to, even if those pit-crew professions of the Formula One university-admissions race had existed in those days. They barely commented on my field of study, apart from expressing a mild disgust that anyone would willingly choose a life in journalism.

Those days are over, as anyone with a high-school-aged child interested in postsecondary education will know. Parents’ economic anxiety and fear about the future have work have them gnawing their knuckles raw. They hover anxiously over their children’s choice of program and university, weighing the cost of tuition (which has been rising roughly along with the cost of inflation) versus the potential return on investment of a future bridge-builder, chip designer or management consultant. It’s a little like bringing a pig to market: How much feed versus price per pound?

That sounds so mercenary, doesn’t it? But this, unfortunately, is how the equation is framed these days. Every year, there are lists of the most valuable undergraduate degrees – based on salary, naturally. Or you can judge by “employability”; nine Canadian universities made the Times Higher Education’s list of 250 institutions most desired by employers. This monetization of the educational process carries a dark message: Fail to boost your kid over the right wall, and you end up with a permanent guest in your basement.

It’s no wonder that parents have gone spinny with anxiety, and their kids along with them. But it’s time to take a step backward and think about what we’re doing to them – and who, precisely, we’re doing it for. A few weeks before I returned to the high-school classroom, I sat next to a postsecondary consultant at dinner. She told me about her wealthy clients, most of whom were coaching their children to get into elite business schools. What about the ones who don’t like commerce, I asked naively. What about the ones who want to be playwrights or electricians? What about the ones who can’t count?

It’s not just the parents in that expensive suburb. The Globe and Mail carried a story late last year about university counsellors complaining that parental interference was stressing their students out; parents were pushing kids into programs they weren’t suited for and didn’t enjoy. There’s always been a tension between what parents expect and what children desire, but the high-performance parenting of the past few decades has pulled that leash even tighter.

Sometimes we don’t recognize how tight that leash is, or how it’s choking off our kids’ air. “Kids whose parents battled the college admission process for them become kids whose parents fight their battles in college,” Julie Lythcott-Haims writes in her 2015 book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success. Ms. Lythcott-Haims would know: For 10 years as freshman dean at Stanford University, she witnessed the worst of the micromanaging (parents writing entrance essays, badgering the enrolment office and, memorably, one dad who reported his daughter missing because she hadn’t called him in a day). It left some students drained and miserable and floundering on their own. The college-admission process, she writes, is the culmination of the “nuclear arms race” of modern parenting, and it is now more reflective of parents’ status anxieties than students’ talents or ambitions.

How bad is it? The most popular course introduced at Yale University this year owed its popularity to … the difficulty of getting into Yale. Called Psychology and the Good Life but more commonly called “The Happiness Course,” it’s aimed at teaching undergrads how to lead more contented lives. The class’s instructor, Laurie Santos, told The New York Times she believed “that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called ‘the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.’”

At this point, kids, I’d just like to say that an elite degree isn’t much good if you’ve carbonized your brain and soul to get it, and you’re left wandering the smoking ruins of your youth whispering, like David Byrne, “How did I get here?” Feel free to let your parents know.

In fact, feel free to cut your parents out of the process altogether – or at least as much as you can while still getting that cheque for tuition. In the end, it will be your sizable debt. Decide how you want to live, not just want you want to do, and make your choices accordingly. If all else fails, throw a dart. It will probably be as useful as your parents’ advice.

As I tell my own son, who’s preparing for this journey (and who listens with one-eighth of an ear), consider your years in university or college as a gift. A chance to find out who you are. You’ll still be a very young man when you graduate. Your wanderings will lead you down many paths. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Usually when I reach this point in my Book of Middle-Aged Aphorisms, he’s stopped listening to me entirely. Which is the best possible outcome.

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