Unless you have been under a self-imposed media blackout for the past two weeks, you are aware that the world of college admission has been riddled by another scandal—this one with all the makings of a Hollywood movie. The sensationalism of the news trifecta of sports, celebrities, and money in selective college admission has begun to soften and we are processing the initial “shock.” Now, can we please have a discussion about one of the elephants on the quad? Elitism. In the coming days and weeks, we will learn more and more about the unethical actions that brought on the investigation and subsequent charges. We will shake our heads and our fingers at the large sums of money involved, and the blatant dishonesty demonstrated by all parties. But, what is the real story here?
Should we be appalled at coaches, consultants and parents for conspiring to get students admitted based on falsified athletic ability and cheating on standardized tests? Certainly. But we should also consider our own societal fixation on the “elite” colleges in the country, the thwarted cultural capital, and presumed guarantee of success that we attach to a degree from “high status” institutions. The behavior is despicable, but the context in which it is occurring is the real tragedy. This reality is discussed in depth in the recent report from the Making Caring Common Project
at Harvard Graduate School of Education (where I serve as the college admission program manager), Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in The College Admissions Process
We have lost our way in defining what it means to be a well-adjusted young adult, striving for a meaningful future. Meanwhile, we are quick to vilify the whole experience of applying to college based on these extreme cases of individuals who sully the transformative potential of this important rite of passage. In this first of a two-part series, let us listen to the voices of the counselors, admission officers and other constituents who choose to approach admission with a strong moral compass, and healthy perspective on the pervasive (and perverse) elitism that this recent news embodies. Part two will share the voices of high school and college students and their parents, as they reflect on the hyperfocus on a small subset of colleges.
There are undeniably private educational consultants who prey on the fear and anxiety that families can feel as they navigate admission to college. They market their services with names like Ivy Wise, Ivy Coach and Top Tier Admission that, regardless of how reputable their approach is, immediately hint at what should be valued or aspired to. It is incumbent upon these individuals and companies to consider the messages they send. Meanwhile, their fees can be exorbitant, sometimes nearing the cost of a year of college tuition. Are they primarily counselors or entrepreneurs? If it is the former, then they have the responsibility to rebrand. As long as they are fanning the flames of elitism, students and parents will respond. There are, however, a host of counselors who work in this space who are eager to combat this culture and serve a valuable role for students who might not have support in their college search. In addition to fee-based services for families with resources, they do pro-bono work with those who are underserved and without means. Lora Block is one such counselor who is a certified educational planner and works as an independent educational consultant in southern Vermont. In reflecting on the recent scandal, Block says, “I find it very sad that these parents thought so little of their child’s character and legitimate accomplishments that they didn’t encourage her or him to use the application process as the helpful learning opportunity it can be. That means encouraging the student to be introspective and to honestly assess who they are, what they’ve learned, what they are excited about, what they hope to contribute to the world and the college they attend. That’s what ethical parents and college advisors do.”
Test Preparation Companies
As long as standardized tests remain a significant factor in selective college admission, there will be companies seeking to profit from helping students to increase their scores. Yes, there are some bad actors who make unrealistic promises and push their clients to undue limits to maintain the company’s image of excellence. As we now know, there are even some outfits that will enable cheating and fraud. There are many more that are perfectly reputable, and while they do want to make money, they are at their heart educators who want to use preparation as a larger classroom for skill and confidence building. Plenty of these companies also offer scholarships for those who do not have resources or do pro-bono work in addition to their paying clientele. Summit Education Group has offices in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York and has partnered
with a number of local organizations that support underserved students.
Drew Heilpern is a leader at Summit and their chief ambassador. In his post-college experience, he says, “whether it was for a job or to apply to graduate school, the people I interviewed with or connected with cared about three major questions (1) Why was I applying for that particular position (2) What experience could I speak to which I feel prepared me for that position and (3) If I received the position, what would I hope to do with it, what were the opportunities provided to me that I hoped to maximize, and what might that position lead to in the future.” Heilpern adds, “In some ways, thinking about the college search in terms of fit and where students can maximize their skills and take the most advantage of the opportunities that they will encounter, is the first step in helping students graduate with the ability to answer the above three questions.” He argues that students are headed down the wrong path if they approach the college search asking what is “the most elite school that I can get into?” It is these students who usually end up making decisions based on other’s expectations and struggle to find thoughtful and personal responses to those questions. Heilpern says that, "the student who chooses the ‘less prestigious’ school but chooses it because it provides an environment where that student is going to thrive academically, socially and extracurricularly, chances are very strong that the student will have fantastic answers to the above three questions and will be in much better shape for the next step.”
Any family therapist or child psychologist will likely be quick to condemn the atrocious behavior we have seen by those involved in the recent scandal. And while the dishonesty is shameful, the messages it sends to children is the most alarming aspect of this revelation. Dr. David Gleason is a clinical psychologist with nearly three decades of working with young people in schools and is the founder of Developmental Empathy, LLC
. He works with schools to develop policies and practices that address “competitive excellence” that can cause “intense pressures on students to succeed, pressures that overwhelm their still-developing minds and bodies, and that result in their experiences of chronic anxiety and depression, and to a host of debilitating behavioral outcomes.” He is also the author of “At What Cost?: Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools”
. Like many people, Gleason’s initial reaction to the admission scandal was that it was a spoof. When it became clear it was real, this was his response:
"The extent to which these wealthy—and in some cases—famous parents were willing to risk not only their reputations but also, their very integrity for admission to an elite college for their children is truly alarming. I find their apparent level of comfort with deceit to be so disturbing, especially considering what their deliberately deceptive behavior has modeled for their own kids! That said, what does this whole scandal say about the current 'college admission state of affairs' such that some people think the only way to manage this situation—or to cope with the fierce and intensifying competition—is to lie and cheat their way out of it? Clearly, these affluent and famous individuals are in the wrong. However, as absolutely skewed as this may seem, as the saying goes, 'desperate times call for desperate measures.' Sadly, some people have been willing to use anything they have—such as their wealth and fame—to cope with the anxiety that these 'desperate times' have created. Again I ask, At What Cost do we continue to perpetuate this ultra-competitive college admissions climate?"
And just where does this visceral feeling of desperation have its origins? In his book, Gleason addresses the perception that competitive schools are a “passport to a better life.” From sleep deprivation, depression and anxiety to substance abuse, eating disorders and suicide, the burden of expectation weighs heavy on young people. He argues that the adults—schools and parents—must embrace adaptive changes to confront “hyper-schooling” and overachievement.
Tori Berube is the vice president for college planning and community engagement at the New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation (NHHEAF)
. Her organization provides free information about college planning and financial aid for families of all backgrounds. Berube explains that the message they try to reinforce is that there is a path to postsecondary education for everyone, and a program for everyone. She says “'elite' admission and that prestigious school is not for everyone—it’s what you do with any degree you receive, once you have that degree, that sets a student up for success.” She recalls the story of a young man who served as a panelist for one of their community programs on college a few years ago. He came from one of the poorer school districts in the state and went on to a community college to pursue higher education. After receiving his associate’s degree, he went on to a state public university to receive his bachelor’s degree and then went on to medical school. Berube says, “he was an amazing young man whose work ethic got him where he is, not the fact that he was educated at an 'elite' institution,” adding, “there is no shortcut to success. Hard work is required.”
Typically colleges are the first to be thrown under the bus when a story like this breaks, and to be certain, they are not without fault. But before we condemn the entire institution of higher education, let’s think bigger picture and acknowledge that the vast majority of admission officers are in this profession as thoughtful, ethical educators who would rather accept students than deny them. And then college rankings, market realities, and the bottom line come into play and they are forced to respond to the inherent pressures. They are witness to the selective admission arms race and what the elitist mindset can bring about.
In reflecting on the scandal, Andy Strickler, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College says, “the real question is why did this happen? Is it all about status, or is there a level of economic anxiety involved (I HAVE to go to a highly selective place or I will never get a 'good' job)?” He asks, “in the end, does it really matter what the reason is?” adding, “we, as a society, have gotten so wrapped up in a very small definition of success. It is sad. And all it serves to do is limit the ways in which our young people can find, identify, and own a sense of happiness and accomplishment.” When Strickler speaks at high schools, a standard question he asks is "who has heard of Earlham College?" (his alma mater). He explains, “rarely do I see more than 4-5 hands raised.” He says, “the funny thing is, I went to a college that no one has heard of, I had a great experience, I have had multiple jobs, and graduated with a whole bunch of bright, talented, well adjusted, professionally successful people.”
Carey Thompson, vice president of enrollment and communications and dean of admission at Rhodes College agrees, saying “we need to resist the message that this is at all normal or acceptable. As imperfect as it is, professional college admission practice remains based on integrity and fairness. This case represents awful behavior, bordering on child abuse, on the part of a very small percentage, and has nothing to do with the professional ethics and practice of college admission.” He adds, “without exact numbers, I would suggest that the vast, vast majority of all high school seniors each year, even most of the wealthy privileged ones, are admitted to hundreds of fine colleges nationwide without undue or undeserved influence. We should not let the actions of a few call into question the essential fairness of the whole system.” Thompson asks, “is there an overemphasis, in part driven by media obsession, on institutions that are extraordinarily selective?” Responding, “absolutely, this is an ugly part of our culture largely, in my opinion, driven by rankings, parental loss of perspective and fear, and the sense of entitlement some among us seem to have.” However, Thompson explains, “I don’t know a single admission officer, school counselor, or college counseling organization, that doesn’t work against this unattractive streak of our national character.” He also points to the unjust disparity between the educational experience of those who go to “good high schools” versus those who go to the “other high schools.” He argues that “it ought to be illegal, and probably is, to provide the kind of educational experience we are providing to many of those students who go to the high schools that you wouldn’t send your kid to. There are so many people and organizations responsible for this it is hard to know where to start.” He concludes by saying “ultimately, these are cultural, economic and political issues more than college admission issues. The fact that most of America seems to be appalled by this behavior is a good sign. Let’s not let parents and students think it is normal, though. There is nothing better for any student to do (or parent to encourage) than take challenging courses, study, make good grades, read books, learn to write well, and engage in community. All of that is hard, and it’s even harder in some areas than others. Until we fix the other stuff, it is the best solution I know.”
Counselors in high schools also have a front row seat to this perverse obsession with the most selective colleges in the nation and are often frustrated by the impact this has on young people and their families. Diane Campbell is the director of college counseling at Liberty Common High School in Fort Collins, Colorado. She says, “the majority of resources that parents and students use continually lead them to believe that the 'elite' colleges are the mark they need to reach for. Social Media, the news, search sites (which sadly are not regulated in the information they provide families), and books lead many families to believe that the elite colleges are the only choices for their student to have the best education and to ‘make it’ in life and in their chosen career path.” She adds, “each year I have a handful of seniors who apply to the elite schools, and they tell me, ‘I just want to know if I can get it in.’ Many of them apply to not one, but 4-5 or sometimes more of the elite colleges hoping they will be chosen. Many of them do not fit the profile and stress themselves out with the numerous essays and other supplemental materials needed for these applications. It is an exhausting, labor-intensive process...all for the sake of hopefully making it! I guess we can say that innately, we as a society have many of these pressures. What does it really mean to make it? How do we define success? The more likes you have on your social media the more popular you are. Can you imagine the drive in popularity that would exist if I could post I was admitted to Harvard?!”
Campbell also talks about the stress placed on educators, saying, “in some high schools there are many pressures as a college counselor to ‘get kids in.’ The elite colleges that will be listed on our school profile will give us accountability and help us look better than other high schools. ‘If we have Stanford admits’ then we have proven our high school is top and that will sustain our enrollment." She adds, "a few years ago, I had a parent who came into my office and threatened to file a complaint against me because his daughter was not admitted to her elite school. I am not alone. Every year, many counselors are not only threatened, but also have the expectation to carefully document everything we do in the process so that we can show how, and what, we did to support our student in the college application process. Our job is to inform our families about the right colleges to apply to, scholarships, financial aid, essays, letters of recommendation, college tours, majors, and the list goes on. We advocate for all students and do the best we can to inform and educate them about preparing the best application they can. It should never be our job to feel the pressure to get kids into elite schools.”
Jeff Ream is a school counselor in northern California. He says, “it saddens me that so many students (and parents) will ignore the multiple factors of a good fit to pursue what they perceive to be a 'good' school. I hear the word ‘good’ or ‘great’ used to describe the type of school they would like to attend, but when they try to define those terms for themselves, many students have a hard time even starting. That is because good or great is not a recipe for the masses—it is an individual's needs and wants. When we let the masses and society determine what is good for students, it is no wonder we have students unable to develop their own identity or struggling with anxiety and depression because they do not (or do not perceive to) fit the ‘good’ college mold.” He adds, “one simple way to start working on addressing it is to advocate for states, districts and schools to allocate funding to hire school counselors with appropriate duties and caseloads. Nationally, the average student to counselor ratio is over 400 to 1 while in California, it is over 700 to 1. These numbers do not allow us to advise, support and counsel students—and what matters even more—get to know all of the students on our caseload to really help foster the conversation of fit for individuals. Many schools do not have a school counselor even on staff, so kids are left to fend for themselves. It has many additional impacts, but this problem is pervasive at high schools (especially public high schools) around the country.”
Moira Mckinnon is the director of college counseling at Berwick Academy in Maine. She argues that depicting this scam as a sign of the cutthroat nature of college admissions overlooks the heart of the problem. McKinnon says, “college admission would never be so competitive if our ranking-obsessed culture stopped focusing on a tiny slice of colleges with ridiculously low admit rates. College admission procedures are not perfect, and certainly, some of the actions of admission offices feed the frenzy. But the blame in this current scandal rests with parents who, rather than loving and supporting the wonderful, but apparently academically average child they have, instead try to shoehorn them into a more prestigious college to assuage their own egos. For the sake of the name on the car sticker, they would cheat their child's way into a college where they don't belong and are unlikely to thrive, an experience that will further lend credence to the child's sense of mediocrity.”
Keeping it in Perspective
The current admission scandal reveals the most extreme dysfunction of college admission. It is too easy to make generalizations about applying to college and to suggest that the entire system is broken when this kind of situation can occur. Let us not, however, throw out the baby with the bathwater. What these parents, coaches, and consultants did was dirty, yes, but there is so much good also taking place as students imagine where higher education could take them. Whether it is the first-generation college student who was just offered a full scholarship to attend college or the student-athlete who is eager to pursue a degree while continuing the sport they love, there is much to be hopeful about. The majority of students and parents in this country are approaching admission in an ethical and balanced manner. If we can tone down the ranking and fear-fueled focus on elite institutions, we can better concentrate on the engagement and fulfillment that matter most. Stay tuned for part two, with the voices of students and parents who will reinforce this meaningful approach.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project