The U.S. Department of Justice recently charged several people around the country in an alleged scheme to bribe their way into some of the nation’s most selective colleges. This case has captured the attention of many – especially college-bound students and their parents. In the past two weeks, I have been asked numerous times if I am surprised by the cheating and bribery that has been uncovered in this case. I am sorry to say, I am not surprised.
After five years working in a college admission office and 27 years as an independent school college counselor, I have seen marked changes in the college admission world. In the last two decades, admission to the most selective colleges in our country has become extremely competitive. There is something in human nature that seems to want things that are difficult to attain – whether that be a limited-edition car, expensive handbag, membership at a country club or tickets to a Broadway show. The harder it is to get, the more we seem to want it. Admission to the most selective schools has become a contest, with students and parents often losing sight of the match to be found and instead looking for the prize to be won.
Losing Sight of What’s Really Important
Unfortunately, in the current climate, students and parents can forget what is truly important in the college search. The best results are when students are true to themselves, both in terms of their assessment of which college communities feel best to them, as well as the presentation of their applications and other admission credentials. The pressure for admission can create a belief that students must hire the “best” testing coach or essay tutor, seek letters of support from connected alumni or trustees, petition for testing accommodations when not needed, embellish activities and accomplishments and/or strategize how to game the system. When parents push these tactics, no matter how well-intentioned they are, they add to the frenzy and hype of the college process. They also send the message to their children that they do not have confidence in their children’s abilities to be successful in admission to their colleges without these additional supports. As we all know, adolescence is a time of exploration of who the teenager wants to be as an adult and often self-doubt. No student I know benefits when his or her parents send the message that without all these strategies, he or she is not good enough.
Building Pressures on Higher Education
Higher education in the United States is not the ivory tower that many would like to believe. It is a business like any other – it must be profitable to remain. Presidents, directors of admission, coaches, athletic directors, financial officers of college and universities are fired if they do not make their numbers – whether they are filling the freshman class, raising enough for the endowment, having winning seasons, or keeping a balanced budget. With all these pressures, like in any other industry, some leaders choose unethical practices to meet the numbers. And as with the most recent news, some are subject to bribery to line their pockets.
Modeling Ethical Behavior
It is my belief as a parent and educator, my role is to model ethical and moral behavior for my own children, the students, my collegiate colleagues and my work colleagues. Our children and students are very observant (especially when we think they are ignoring us) and they can easily be influenced by adults who are acting badly. Even when choosing these bad behaviors, parents want the best for their children. Unfortunately for some, they believe the cost is never too high to achieve that brass ring.
At Oak Knoll, we are fortunate to live in a faith-based community. With this foundation, students and parents alike can rely on their belief system to provide the answers for many of life’s questions/pressures. During my years at Oak Knoll, many parents have asked me how I handle the pressure of the college admission cycle year after year. I always reply that I feel fortunate to work with talented, thoughtful, committed young women who will go out into the world and make a difference. It is my belief that there is a plan for each student to which God will guide her. It has been my privilege to help each student live out that plan and find her next educational home. Unlike the parents in this FBI case, we can trust that “things will work out as they should.” As Cornelia Connelly, founder of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, wisely said, “We have God and truth on our side, therefore we need fear nothing.”