Thursday, March 21, 2019

College Admissions - Lessons in a Scandal

Last week’s disclosure about the extent to which families will go to buy their kids’ way into college raises the anxiety around school admissions to a new level.  While the news is disturbing and unsettling, conditions have long been ripe for abuse. Coinciding with the timing of March college decisions, the news broke as we brace for this year's announcements of record high applications and new lows in admission rates.  It's no wonder that the frenzy around getting in grows more feverish with each cycle. There is much uncertainty and little transparency around admission decisions, making the terrain a breeding ground for novel ways to game and as we now know, even criminally exploit the system.  

Not surprisingly, admissions is far from a fair and transparent process. Imagine yourself an admission officer with marching orders to admit a class using criteria stacked with competing priorities: improve access for less privileged students and increase diversity (not one and the same), field competitive sports teams, and keep alumni, an important development source, happy.  And somewhere in there is a goal to enroll an well-balanced class that meets certain academic standards while managing to stay within a limited financial aid budget. No wonder the system is rife with inequities. What this means for the majority of smart, high achieving students is that they are competing for increasingly fewer available spots, after other “institutional” priorities have first been met.  

The situation increasingly encourages those who have influence to use it, whether making a substantial monetary gift to a school or using well-placed connections. While these actions may not skirt the law, they sometimes push the boundaries of ethical standards to improve a student’s chances. I would include in that category buying access with eyebrow-raising donations, and misrepresentations made by unscrupulous college admission consultants charging egregiously priced fees while instilling fear to convince parents of their worth.  Sadly, some individuals lacking a moral compass have taken it a step further. They recognized and acted on an opportunity to illegally secure certainty and prestige in an otherwise unpredictable environment. 

Working with students and families, I constantly hear and feel the anxiety around college admissions. The response I wish to offer, though rarely do for fear of how it might be taken is simply, breathe!  Breathing grounds us so we can refocus on what’s important: the mental and physical well-being of both our children and ourselves. This is core to the values embraced by the majority of counselors and educational consultants guiding students, those who are affiliated with associations that hold them to a high set of standards like the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).  We emphasize “fit,” avoid stoking fear and make no guarantees. 

It’s easy to lose perspective when winning a spot at a prestigious college becomes the primary objective, overshadowing admission to a place where our children will be appropriately challenged and supported, and where they will ultimately feel good about what they achieve. I hope and believe that families hire me to help them make student-focused, appropriate choices, whether it’s my input for the courses their child should take or the colleges I recommend they target.  I seek to enlighten them to the many wonderful colleges that accept more than 20-25% of their applicants, below which a school is no longer an outcome to count on for most students.  I also hope they'll come to realize that selectivity is not a measure of quality.

 I worry about the message being sent to many young people today.  There is less emphasis on helping youth develop grit and build resilience, teaching them how to pull themselves back up after experiencing failure or disappointment.  When kids observe their parents stressing about whether particular colleges will accept them, they are more likely to interpret and internalize the message to mean one thing: If I don’t get in, I will be a disappointment. Or worse: I've failed. The news media doesn’t help either. While my intent is not to bash the press or colleges that tout their low admit rates and the diminishing odds of being accepted, this kind of reporting only fuels the panic and anxiety.  We need instead to embrace Angela Duckworth’s message in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and dial back the focus on the latest record highs in college applications (which of course translates into lower acceptance rates and more disappointment). Wouldn’t we rather raise children who are motivated to keep trying in the face of disappointment rather than likely to give up and conclude that life is unfair?

And here's the clincher.  It doesn't matter where you go...really! It matters what you do where you end up and how you seize and take advantage of the opportunities offered. In the words of Frank Bruni (and title of his book), Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be.  The college does not make the person.  If you still have doubts, check out the class profile for the students who entered Harvard Law School last fall.  You might be surprised by the range of undergraduate colleges from which students hail and the many non-household name schools.  

The scandal that has rocked the college admissions world exposes the extent to which greed and entitlement can fester when values are skewed and priorities misplaced.  One of the many shames of the college admission scandal is how the parents and other guilty parties hijacked the process, and in doing so, brought shame upon their kids. On a far different scale, the tendency to stress over and control the college admission process, though coming from a caring place, may not be what’s best for our children. Teach them how to be resilient instead. Whatever behavior we model, our children are watching.