As an alum college interviewer, I am often astounded by the caliber of prospective college students I talk to who are not only at the top of their classes but also competitive athletes, state-recognized musicians, and start-up founders.
Colleges across the country have seen massive increases in applicants and rapidly decreasing admittance rates. Take, for instance, my alma mater—Rice University—which has seen a 30% increase in applications between the 2018 and 2019 application cycles. At the same time, admissions rates have dropped from 16% in 2015 to 11% in 2018. From a lay person’s perspective, it does seem that college admission is an increasingly more competitive feat.
The difficulty of getting into the right school and the importance of college-going more generally are often discussed in the media in terms of meddling parents who over-schedule their children’s calendars with extracurricular activities or take more drastic measures to ensure their children gain admission to the colleges of their choice. Less attention, however, has been paid to how competitive college admissions also shape the opportunities youth have to identify themselves, find friends, and otherwise navigate the high school social landscape.
The wide array of college-level courses and extracurricular opportunities available to high school students has indirectly shaped the high school social landscape. Although classes and clubs are attractive to colleges, they are also important avenues by which youth are clustered into peer crowds that share similar characteristics, activities, and values (e.g., college aspirations). These peer crowds are the location of much of the identity work, friendship formation, and social ranking that are developmentally important for adolescents. In the current demographic moment, when college-going is more consequential for later life prospects and high school offerings are more diverse than ever before, peer crowds that value college-going are likely to increase in number and in social status.
In a study published in 2018 in the Journal of Adolescent Research, my colleagues and I set out to map the current high school landscape given the increased focus on college-going that characterizes adolescents’ current reality. We were particularly interested in the ways in which college-bound students—an ever-growing, diverse subset of adolescents—experience their high schools.
We find that college-bound youth do indeed identify multiple “college-bound” crowds, including familiar crowds like the Smarts, who have historically been viewed as college-bound, and the Populars and Jocks, who have only recently developed a newfound focus on college.
Several other “college-bound” crowds are newer on the scene, including the Fine Arts and Good-Ats, who are not just academically gifted but also “good at” other extracurricular activities (e.g., swimming, chess, dance). This crowd may be a response to adolescents diversifying their activities to become more attractive to colleges looking for “well-rounded” applicants, not just the highest-scoring youth.
We also see that adolescents who are themselves college-bound see explicitly college-focused crowds as higher on the social hierarchy than other—and consequentially “counterculture”—crowds like the Emo/Goths and Druggie/Stoners, among others.
Although college-bound students may see crowds without normative college aspirations less favorably, they do not view all college-bound crowds as having similar status. For example, Smarts are relegated to the bottom of the totem pole, compared to Populars, Jocks, and Good-Ats who occupy similarly high positions in the high school food chain. This hierarchy suggests that it isn’t enough to just have high test scores; adolescents ascribe more status to those college-bound youth who have interests beyond the classroom, which may also translate into higher odds of getting into competitive colleges.
Are these changes in high school peer crowds and social hierarchies solely the perceptions of college-bound youth? Maybe. But as more and more students have their eyes on attending college and as college admissions become increasingly more competitive, the perceptions of college-bound youth will likely become increasingly important in shaping what is considered “cool in school” and what activities youth choose to cultivate over others.
Lilla Pivnick is a fourth-year graduate student in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and a NICHD Pre-doctoral Research Trainee at the Population Research Center. Her research interests include gender and health, demography, education, and children and youth. Her work examines the ways in which high school peer crowds have changed over time and how adolescents use peer crowd heuristics to make sense of their social worlds. You can follow Lilla on Twitter at @1i11a.