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A Trove of Articles on the Cheating Scandal

March 18, 2019

Last week’s arrests of 33 parents who spent tens of thousands of dollars to hire a “consultant” to help them secure a place in one of the country’s elite colleges resulted in a flood of articles on college admissions. Each article could warrant a stand-alone blog post… but I am trying to scale back on the number and length of blog posts in hopes of devoting more time to writing op ed pieces and/or completing a book I started over a decade ago… but I cannot resist reacting to several of the articles. The articles I culled for reactions are outlined below:

In “College Admissions: Vulnerable, Exploitable, and to Many Americans, Broken“, Anemona Harticollis describes how the whole admissions process to college is, as the title indicates, “exploitable, arbitrary, broken“. Two quotes from  Jerome Karabel, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a historian of college admissions stood out for me. The first:

“Elite colleges have become a status symbol with the legitimacy of meritocracy attached to them, because getting in sanctifies you as meritorious”

And the second one, in the concluding paragraphs:

Mr. Karabel, the sociologist, said that the bribery crisis simply reflected problems in broader society. “I think that as America has become more and more unequal, affluent parents have become desperate to pass on their privileges to their children and avoid downward mobility at all costs,” he said.

Fair access to education, the engine of upward mobility, he suggested, is the casualty.

And one statistic from the article also stood out:

…the admission rate for legacies at Harvard was 33.6 percent. The rate for the Class of 2022 as a whole was under 5 percent.

NY Times reporters Dana Goldstien and Jack Healy describe the consulting process itself in an article titled “Inside the Pricey, Totally Legal World of College Consultants”. As Superintendent who retired from SAU 70, an affluent district in NH that included Hanover High School, I witnessed this world which consisted of everything from retired educators offering advice to the parents of their nieces and nephews to retired guidance counselors earning supplementary income by helping parents navigate the complicated application process, to retirees offering SAT help to slick and costly consultants like those described in the article. And, as the article indicates, the whole enterprise of college admissions coaching is completely unregulated, which makes it particularly vulnerable to the kinds of scandals that emerged this past week. The one paragraph that jumped out for me was this one, that attributed the expansion of admissions consultants to the diminishment of counseling services at public schools:

The growth of private consulting has been driven, in part, by a shortage of guidance counselors in public schools. During the 2015 to 2016 school year, each public school counselor was responsible for an average of 470 students, according to the group.

When I was Principal in rural Maine we had one counselor for 750 high school and middle schoolers. Hanover High School, by contrast, has six counselors for 750 students. Based on the fact that 90+% of the students pursue higher education this is adequate… yet, as noted above, some parents nevertheless seek out additional help.

The scandal also brought forth some scandalous behavior on the part of “elite colleges”, as described in another NYTimes article by Ozan Jaquette and Karina Salazar. The scandalous behavior is captured in the title of the article, “Colleges Recruit at Richer, Whiter High Schools” and despite the data that supports the title the article appeared as an opinion piece.

Even the “Your Money” section of the NYTimes offered some insights into the skewed admissions practices in an article by Ron Lieber describing how colleges are inclined to accept students who can afford to pay full tuition costs over those who need some kind of financial aid. The reason? Some schools “don’t have unlimited aid budgets and generally don’t want to overload families with debt” so they will show some degree of favoritism toward students who don’t need to draw against their scarce pool of scholarships. The thought provoking article illustrates how this conundrum is addressed in different ways by the colleges who use this “need-aware” policy.

The final NYTimes article that sheds indirect but glaring light on this admissions scandal describes “snow-plow” parents: those who strive to remove all obstacles from their children’s lives as they mature in the name of assuring their happiness and success. The result, as article by Clara Cain Miller and Jonah Engel Bromwich indicates, is that parents are robbing their children of adulthood. The link between this kind of parenting and the scandalous behavior that captured headlines is self-evident… but here it is summarized in two paragraphs:

Helicopter parenting, the practice of hovering anxiously near one’s children, monitoring their every activity, is so 20th century. Some affluent mothers and fathers now are more like snowplows: machines chugging ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child’s path to success, so they don’t have to encounter failure, frustration or lost opportunities.

Taken to its criminal extreme, that means bribing SAT proctors and paying off college coaches to get children in to elite colleges — and then going to great lengths to make sure they never face the humiliation of knowing how they got there.

And, as Miller and Bromwich report, the snowplowing begins early and often never leaves:

It starts early, when parents get on wait lists for elite preschools before their babies are born and try to make sure their toddlers are never compelled to do anything that may frustrate them. It gets more intense when school starts: running a forgotten assignment to school or calling a coach to request that their child make the team.

Later, it’s writing them an excuse if they procrastinate on schoolwork, paying a college counselor thousands of dollars to perfect their applications or calling their professors to argue about a grade.

Oh… and for some hard-core snowplowing parents it doesn’t end with college:

The problem is: Snowplowing is a parenting habit that’s hard to break.

“If you’re doing it in high school, you can’t stop at college,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims (the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success”) said. “If you’re doing it in college, you can’t stop when it comes to the workplace. You have manufactured a role for yourself of always being there to handle things for your child, so it gets worse because your young adult is ill-equipped to manage the basic tasks of life.”

And once a young adult relies on their parents for making medical appointments, keeping track of their finances, and finding their way in the world it creates a helplessness that is hard to overcome.

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