Thankfully, most students and parents have responded to the recent college admission scandal with disgust. They are disgusted by the blatant dishonesty, disgusted by the unethical behavior, and disgusted by the influence of money and power in a system that they would hope to be more equitable and just. They share this disgust with the majority of admission officers, school counselors and other constituents who are intimately involved in guiding young people to college and whose voices we heard in the first piece
of this two-part series. These educators expounded on the elitism, rankings and hyperfocus on a small subset of schools that can have an unhealthy impact on the experience of searching for, and applying to, college.
While few students or parents would engage in the appalling behavior uncovered through this scandal, admission to college can nevertheless cause families to quickly lose perspective. Not many people would lie, cheat or buy their way to acceptance to an “elite” school, but the lengths to which they will go can be nearly as disturbing. Endless hours of standardized test prep, year-round athletics, unrealistic academic schedules, sleep deprivation, insane extracurricular involvement, and other excessive behaviors emerge in response to achievement pressure. These are just a few of the indicators of a fading grip on what really matters. Parents fall prey to the chatter in the carpool lane, the sidelines at games, and cocktail parties—soon the selectivity of admission becomes a validation of good parenting. Likewise, students succumb to the buzz in class, the hallways and at practices—suddenly their sense of self-worth is tied up in the name of a college.
In some circles, it can seem like everyone is gunning for admission to an “elite” school. We might know intellectually that college is not about a prize or status, but then fear and yearning kick in and we might experience a reflexive desire for admission to the most selective school. After all, we want the best for ourselves and our children and selectivity must be tied to quality, right? Not necessarily. For those who feel their sense of perspective slipping, listen to the following voices of students and parents, and ask yourself why?
Call them a helicopter, snowplow, bulldozer, lawnmower, velcro or whatever other derogatory terms you wish, but parents love their kids and would do anything for them. This is both a blessing and a curse. When anything means lying and cheating, clearly this is unconditional love gone astray. The college admission experience provides an opportunity for parents to model ethical behavior, listen to their children and begin to let go of the reigns.
is an author, speaker, life coach and—most importantly—the mother of a college freshman and high school senior. She explains that, “As parents, it’s a huge challenge to disentangle our hopes, dreams and expectations for our children from the process of choosing the school that best meets their needs long-term,” adding, “and that’s assuming I’ve been able to separate how it reflects on me as a parent. It’s hard to distinguish between what makes our kids happy and what makes us happy. We all claim we just want what makes our children happy, but many kids these days don’t even know what makes them happy because we’ve been controlling their happiness for so long. College is a part of that journey of discovery.” Mathews says, “There is so much fear involved in the process, especially when we fall prey to compare and despair with other parents and kids.” In reflecting on the recent admission scandal she suggests that “there’s a fine line between guiding our children and controlling them, and it’s often times hard to distinguish between the two. It feels like our children’s entire future hinges on this one single decision.” She adds, “in a society that’s obsessed with celebrity, the elite schools seem to fall in a similar category. For many, there seems to be that same allure of their child reaching ‘stardom’ by gaining one of those coveted spots.”
Michael Kleber-Diggs is the parent of a high school senior in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He says, “Throughout the admissions process I've tempered my reaction by focusing on three ideas that are important to me. First, my daughter's accomplishments are hers, not mine. Second, how other people or institutions feel about my daughter has nothing to do with how I feel about her. I make sure to tell her that. Third, what matters more than the rush of saying ‘my child is off to Elite University X’ is my daughter's happiness in the four years that follow. Whatever she decides, she has to live with it. Her choice should be hers, and her choice shouldn't be corrupted by external considerations.”
His perspective on the scandal and the fixation on a small subset of selective schools is informed by his own college experience. Kleber-Diggs explains,
"I went to a school that currently has an acceptance rate of about 94%. While there I met some of the brightest and most interesting people I've ever known. I learned a tremendous amount and had a blast. I'm not sure I'd trade my years at my alma mater for admission at any other school. My first day at law school, I met my classmates, many of whom attended elite universities. I just remember thinking ‘wow, we're all in the same room now. Some of us started at the best university in America. I went to a good school that isn't ranked anywhere near the top, and we're all in the same room.’"
Henry (who asked that his last name not be used) is a public high school student who was chosen to be part of the very selective U.S. Senate Page Program last year in Washington D.C. He says that when he read about the scandal he immediately thought about his experience at the program, where about two-thirds of the students in his class of pages were interested in either the Ivy League or the “top tier” military academies. He explains that one classmate, “was spending 2-3 hours a day studying for the ACT for about 3 weeks, and disregarded his 1500 SAT because it wasn't Ivy worthy.” Henry adds, “While I find his grit admirable (he did end up with a 35 composite score), the motivation behind his actions always seemed both superficial and judgmental. Having someone act like being accepted to the Ivy League is the sole standard for ‘success’ in secondary school feels incredibly demeaning.” Insightful beyond his years, Henry says, “Now more than ever, I think it is time to evaluate whether labeling Ivy-level performance as high school's gold standard is effective or even realistic. The fact that 'elite' schools are placed on a near unearthly cultural pedestal serves as yet another reminder that no matter how hard most of America works, most won't be able to compete with the few who have access to private tutors, college counseling, etc. Even as someone who has access to many of those amenities, the gap between me and the most well-off students still seems unbridgeable.”
Maggie Britton is a senior at an independent high school in Maryland. She agrees with Henry and reflects on her interactions with her classmates after learning about the admission scandal saying,
"We had a long discussion at lunch the following day about the elitism throughout the whole college process. College is treated as a requirement in the job market but priced as a luxury. Not just tuition costs, but simply the cost to look competitive against other applicants. The cost of ACT or SAT tutoring, the cost to send the score to schools, and the cost to send applications to schools can really be a burden on many. Even the cost to have interesting extracurriculars can be high. Many schools don’t have the resources for opportunities like Mock Trial, Model UN, Student Government, or a debate team. I am lucky enough to go to a small private school with three very good college counselors who had the time to really get to know us, answer our many questions, and will personally call and advocate for us to our admissions counselor. Many public schools don’t have this resource and so many students are left to figure it out on their own. I also had the opportunity to meet with a lot of college administrators because I had a parent who works in higher ed. I was able to have them give me a private tour or talk about my interest in the school. For a lot of first-generation college students, that is not an option. I understand that colleges try to be as need-blind and holistic as possible when assessing applicants, but in order to be competitive and show that the school is your number one choice, you need a lot of resources that a lot of families just don’t have."
The scandal only accentuates how unlevel the playing field is for families in admission. Mayana Llewelyn is a senior from a public high school in New Hampshire. She says,
"No matter where you end up, it’s ultimately up to you to create your experience. No brand name college is going to give you happiness if you can’t find that within yourself. It’s discouraging to see my brilliant peers stressing over getting into a highly selective college because they feel the need to prove themselves when I can see so easily how intelligent and amazing they are. We can’t define ourselves by others’ validation. I think that if everyone could realize prestigious colleges aren’t all that, it would create a welcoming process that feels like an exciting next step in each individual's future, not a rat race towards a brand name that’s ultimately not guaranteeing you more success. While there’s something to say for the alumni networks of some prestigious schools, every college has the potential for amazing networking as long as you get involved and connect with your peers and professors, but again that’s up to us. Hopefully, this scandal will relieve the nation of its fixation on elite schools."
Olivia Burdette is a first-year student, at Brown University. “I go to a school that is considered to be prestigious, but what I've realized in coming to college is that when you're actually immersed in your life at school, it really doesn't feel nearly as impressive as it does when looking at an institution from the outside. I've seen friends at my school and other schools, no matter their perceived level of prestige, do amazing things academically and discover the activities and causes that make them excited, and that has nothing to do with prestige.” Burdette admits, “As I was thinking about applying to schools, prestige definitely made its way into my calculations of where I wanted to be in college. I wanted to get into the best school I possibly could, but I knew that there were some places where I just wouldn't succeed.” In reflecting on the recent news, she adds, “I think that what these parents did harms not only the other students whose acceptances they took away by cheating the system, but also their own children, who might not have considered the schools they attend now had they been able to think about the application process through their own views of what they wanted out of their college experience and what they believed they could handle.”
As the details of this scandal continue to unfold and we watch the reactions of those parents, students, consultants and coaches who have been implicated, hopefully, we can be inspired and comforted by these voices of young people, and their parents. They are willing to pause and think critically about our collective attitude and approach toward higher education. In our weaker moments of fear and uncertainty, we can read these words and be reminded that there is no guarantee of success in life. What we do with our opportunities, and our lives is so much more important than admission to any one college. Your potential is not limited by where you enroll.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project