By many measures, parents do, indeed, have good grounds to be concerned. Those who came of age in the 1980s could not have been unaware of a major stock market crash in the middle of that decade and then some significant bumps along the way to the first decade of the twenty-first century.2 The boom time of the 1990s might have left some households awash in disposable income, but well before the recession that began in 2008, there were signs of an impending economic crisis, with periodic slowdowns in the economy. Even if families believe themselves to be unaffected by the rise and fall of the Dow Jones, they might be aware of studies that show increasing levels of inequality between the top income earners in the country and those at the bottom.1 What has been called the squeezing out of the middle class—or even the disappearance of the middle class—has struck fear into the hearts of professional middle-class and middle-class parents who worry that should their children fail to make it, they will tumble farther down the social class ladder than was the case in the past.
Another set of statistics strikes a special fear in the hearts of the professional middle-class parents. Children born during the post—World War II baby boom (which began in 1946 and extended to 1964) are now themselves parents with children poised to enter college. That second baby boom produced a high school graduating class that was expected to peak in 2009 at about 2.9 million after a fifteen-year climb.4 As a result, throughout most of the first decade of the twenty-first century the competition for entrance into elite colleges was claimed to be a lot tougher than it used to be. And the media avidly reports all the details about this new competition and stirs up anxieties about status reproduction. Stories appeared regularly with titles such as “Applications to Colleges Are Breaking Records”; “High Anxiety of Getting into College”; “Young, Gifted, and Not Getting into Harvard”; “A Great Year for Ivy League Colleges, but Not So Good for Applicants to Them.”5 They told the sad tales of students with perfect SAT scores, valedictorians of their high school class boasting resumes sparkling with extracurricular activities, who were still denied entrance to the college of their choice. Meanwhile U. S. News & World Report continues to tell parents just which colleges their children should choose—and which are lower down on the pecking order. Small wonder that parents and children alike feel under pressure.