college admissions scandal

Last week, I was sitting in a movie theater watching Personal Statement, a documentary film about a group of students attending resource-challenged schools in Brooklyn—schools where each counselor was responsible for guiding over 600 students through the college admissions process. Top students in each school were called forth, not only to navigate their own college applications, but to provide guidance for other students who needed the help. Think about it: first-generation college students, students who had absolutely no familiarity with the world of admissions, were called upon to explain the process to their peers. There are students in our society who are not only pulling themselves up from their bootstraps, they’re manufacturing their own boots, too—boots for themselves and boots for their peers.

Contrast that documentary with this week’s news, the story where parents of extreme wealth and privilege committed fraud to get their children admitted to top U.S. universities. The criminal scheme entangled within its web the worlds of Hollywood, finance, elite universities, college athletics, and standardized testing. It’s breathless in scope. And it’s shocking.

At College Coach, we spend most of our professional days counseling students from all walks of life, helping them discover their joys, their talents, their strengths, helping them see how they might possibly become their very best selves—because it’s in their authentic best selves that they make their college dreams a tad more real. Sometimes that entails talking to parents about trusting their child’s gut and letting go. While we all want the very best for our children—we want them to succeed, we want them to find their joy, we want them to find their niche—helping our children shouldn’t be confused with “helping our children.” There’s a difference between guiding our children towards a future and engineering a future for them based upon a fabricated past, a difference between giving them honest feedback for a college essay they’ve written and rewriting that college essay, a difference between seeking test prep for standardized tests and having someone take a test for them. One process allows a student to earn their achievements in their own right, the other is fraud.

Before yesterday’s news broke, I had started my day on an optimistic note. I was touring my son’s prospective kindergarten, and the principal giving the tour was telling us about the school’s most recent plan to encourage parents, at drop off, to do just that: drop off their children. She asked that we, as parents, say our goodbyes and trust that our children could make it to their classrooms on their own without our help. She said, “I know it’s a scary thought, but you have to trust that your kids can do this; you have to trust that they’re going to figure this one out for themselves.”

And they will. Education, guidance, parenting…they’re not about getting our children into the schools of their dreams, they’re about giving our children the tools that will allow them to succeed at the schools of their dreams, regardless of the school.

What makes yesterday’s news hardest to bear? The fact that it implicated not just parents, but people who worked at institutions of trust: test administrators and coaches. Notions of fairness and equity were shaken to their core; it’s hard to imagine where we go from here. Perhaps, as a society, we need to reflect upon the health of our meritocracy. Maybe, we need to tackle questions of equity and fairness anew. This moral lapse in judgement requires more than parents simply trusting their children to figure things out. Educators, universities, test administrators… we’re going to have to work harder than ever at earning our children’s trust too.

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Written by Zaragoza Guerra
Zaragoza Guerra is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Zaragoza previously worked as a senior admissions officer at MIT, Caltech, and The Boston Conservatory.