There is a lady I know who will not frequent any of her known haunts during the weeks between now and spring: she will avoid the "Social Safeway", for example, where people in Washington's Georgetown area do their grocery shopping. She is the admissions officer for the most elite private nursery school in Washington, deciding whether three- and four-year-olds are to be awarded places. But she knows from experience that she is likely to be badgered by hopeful parents, so important is it considered for the toddlers to get into the system of educational privilege. A businessman in New York, for example, was recently found to have used bribes worth millions to get his children into the "right" nursery school in Manhattan.
The reasons are not hard to find. Last summer, 2.83 million students graduated from high school - the highest number since the early 1980s. Two-thirds had plans to go to college. With the 1990s awash in money for extra tuition, all this meant that the pressure on colleges was immense. Parents of many nursery schoolchildren already have one aim in mind for their children - HYP (Harvard, Yale or Princeton). The amount of homework given to six- to eight-year-olds tripled between 1981 and 1997, and the tunnel-vision aim for many parents of these very young children is simple. It is HYP.
Even the youngest children thus find themselves subject to increasing stress. Commercial tutoring outside school is now a $3bn industry. The pressures accelerate as high school kids approach SAT time - the standardised achievement testing that is a main determinant of college entry. In extreme cases, parents spent $30,000 on SAT tuition for their 16- to 17-year-olds. The latest scam is to have kids classified as psychologically handicapped and thus requiring extra time to complete the tests: whole institutes exist in Connecticut to serve the New York area for this purpose. (But it does not always work: HYP and others are increasingly rejecting students with perfect SAT scores.) The result is that when students finally reach college, they are stressed out by years of pressure preparing for college entrance exams. A study just published in Professional Psychology: research and practice finds that among 13,000 students at Kansas State University surveyed between 1989 and 2001, the rate of depression had doubled. So had the percentage of suicidal students. Another study - done in 2002 and out this year - found that there had been 116 suicides at 55 colleges throughout America.
In that study, more than 80 per cent of 274 heads of college counselling practices said they believed that the number of students with severe psychological disorders had increased over the past five years. It is as though, one director said, students no longer seem to have the emotional resources that they used to be able to draw on; a relatively trivial problem becomes a full-blown crisis. A greater awareness of mental health facilities that are available clearly accounts for some of the increase in statistics, but college social workers actually believe the problem is under- rather than overstated. Students are simply worn out - and burnt out - before they get to college.
It is the same story at Columbia University in New York, where there has been a 40 per cent increase in the use of its counselling centre since 1994-95. It has nearly doubled its staff, lengthened the hours in which it operates, and set up offices in the dormitories. Students turning up for help at Columbia are suffering mainly from depression, manic depression, panic attacks and eating disorders. And most campuses across America report similar stories. Between 15 and 20 students at the University of Nebraska, for example, have to enter hospital each semester - three to five times the number a decade ago.
In the Kansas State study, though, the percentages of students with eating disorders, chronic mental disorders or drug and alcohol problems stayed much the same in 2001 as in 1989 - while those complaining of sexual or physical abuse from childhood increased sharply in the past decade, then declined.
What has also emerged is that students are often prescribed drugs that they cannot afford; in Kansas, for example, only about 30 per cent of students have medical insurance. Some college counselling centres, too, charge for their services.
All of which makes HYP seem a less desirable goal than those desperately ambitious nursery-school parents think. They see their children as mere vehicles for their ambition. Instead of enjoying normal childhoods, these offspring must have their lives crammed with as many academic, social and sporting achievements as possible. Colleges are beginning to wise up to the rackets, but not nearly so many parents are - which is why you are unlikely to see Ms X in the Social Safeway between now and when the nursery entrance results are released in the spring.