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What Parents Can Learn From the College Admissions Scandal

Offer suggestions and encouragement, but the process should belong to your child


College admissions season always makes families jittery. High school seniors wait anxiously for the fat or thin envelopes or emails that will determine their next four years. But this acceptance season has unnerved the whole country. Mind-boggling details have flooded the media about the biggest college admissions scandal in American history, “Operation Varsity Blues,” so nicknamed by the Justice Department that busted it.

At least 33 parents in six states are facing felony charges, among them actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Elite college have been implicated — Yale, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, University of Southern California and others. At the center of the scandal is unscrupulous college consultant William “Rick” Singer.  In a Bernie Madoff-worthy scheme, carried out for years, he convinced rich and famous parents to contribute mega-sums to his pseudo-educational charity. Then he allegedly paid off college coaches to accept supposed young athletes with doctored profiles. He also bribed test monitors to alter exam scores of prospective students who’d requested extra time and therefore privacy. All this for the goal of getting privileged children into prestigious colleges that their powerful parents feared might not accept them otherwise.

Helicopter Parents and Privileged Kids

It’s the “high pressure parents who wanted that college decal for their car” who have inflated stress and anxiety around college admissions, said Risa Nye, a college counselor at public and private schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.

According to Nye, the slope started getting slippery in the mid-to-late 1990s when parents began lobbying for extra time on tests for their kids — even the ones without learning disabilities — and started paying doctors for phony notes. That was just the loophole Singer exploited.

What message does this extreme helicopter parenting (some call it “drone parenting”) send to young people about their own capabilities? How do they feel knowing that a college they can get into legitimately isn’t good enough for their parents (or their parents’ egos or bragging rights)?  And are these parents so insensitive to their children’s needs that they’d want to send them to an out-of-reach school where they might end up struggling?

Beyond these wealthy parents’ extreme sense of entitlement and the shamelessness of college coaches and test proctors willing to take payoffs, what about the kids themselves? Not just the kids of the scheming parents (they must be humiliated, angry, and ashamed), but also any students applying to college this year, especially low-income kids whose parents couldn’t afford such chicanery. And really, all of our children who have to manage in a system that has careened out of control.

Collateral Damage

One student unwittingly caught in the scandal’s crossfire is Daniela Moroz, a spunky and talented student-athlete at Campolindo High School in Moraga, Calif. who I spoke with. A senior who just turned 18, she’s a three-time world champion in the soon-to-be Olympic sport of kitesurfing. She’ll likely be a contender in the 2024 games.

Moroz had her heart set on going to Stanford. She did everything the sailing coach, John Vandemoer, told her to do to get in — studied hard to keep her GPA high, took many challenging AP classes and carefully juggled her academic work with her rigorous training schedule and international travels to competitions.

People who knew her said that with all her achievements and potential, Stanford would be crazy not to take her. But when she didn’t get in after all her efforts, she said she was “heartbroken, really, really disappointed.”

While Moroz was in Mexico busily winning another championship, her cell phone exploded with texts: Vandemoer was one of the coaches indicted in the admissions scam. He was charged with taking more than $600,000 in bribes for helping to admit two phony sailing candidates (who, ironically, never enrolled).

Moroz will never know if these students won places that might have been hers, but nevertheless, she’s beyond frustrated.  “It blows my mind,” she said. “It’s disgusting and unacceptable. Student-athletes work so hard, and they deserve those spots.”

She’s just one of the hundreds of students who’ve ended up as collateral damage in this scheme.

Leveling the Playing Field

No one knows more about the racial and economic disparities to college access than low-income, first-generation kids trying to navigate the admissions process on their own. But organizations like the Twin Cities, Minn. based College Possible are stepping up to level the playing field. They’ve placed scores of AmeriCorps-connected coaches on inner-city high school campuses across the country to provide free resources, the kind of help kids of wealthier families in wealthier schools take for granted.

“Operation Varsity Blues” has made these groups double down on their mission.

“It’s incredibly disheartening,” said Adam Powell, vice-president of site operations for College Possible, founded in 2001 and now serving 25,000 high-school students in six cities. “People think that college education is a meritocracy, based on the work students have done. This scandal highlights the deep inequities in our system, how other variables, like ZIP code and race, can influence outcomes.”

As an example, he cited an “extremely talented, gifted” high school senior working with College Possible in Chicago. The young man’s single mom had three other children and “didn’t realize how expensive applying to college would be.” But College Possible made good on its name by helping her son get fee waivers for applications, fill out financial aid forms, apply for scholarships, and even take virtual tours of the campuses he wanted to attend. “Our goal is to democratize the process and make it fair,” said Powell.

What Can Concerned Parents Do to Help?

Here are a few legal and legitimate things parents can do to ease the way to their child’s college acceptance:

Encourage him or her to work closely with the high school’s college counselors. Make sure your student gets to know them and gives them enough information to write a winning letter of recommendation.

Take advantage of online resources. If your student’s school doesn’t provide much assistance in applying to college, make sure your son or daughter checks out online resources for test prep help, says Powell, as well as college websites for virtual tours and details about academic programs, sports and college life.

Keep your hands off that admissions essay. You can be a sounding board, but let your students write their essays themselves, counsels Nye. They’ll sound authentic, and you’re also conveying the important message that they can cope on their own.

Help your students define many dream schools, not just one. Encourage them to apply to just one “out of reach” college and spend most of their time on applications for the more reachable ones.

Finally, repeat this mantra to your child:  It doesn’t matter where you go, but what you do when you get there.

By Elizabeth Fishel
Elizabeth Fishel is the co-author of Getting to 30:  A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years  (Workman Publishing).  

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