Parenting 101: What’s Really Behind The College Admissions Scandal

By Sara Singer Schiff

The first time I remember feeling “school angst” was in my daughter’s first baby class. In fact, if I really think about it, it was before my daughter was even born and I was told that I needed to get into “the best baby class in LA.” That’s when the race started.

I had moved to LA from London and was eight months pregnant. Several months later, I was talking with a new friend who casually asked if I was signed up for any baby classes. When I told her no, she looked at me wide eyed with concern. Didn’t I know? Parents put their names on the waiting list for these classes the moment they found out they were pregnant! I was way behind! I immediately felt that sense of “mom panic” that would come up again and again throughout my kids’ academic careers. Thankfully, this new friend had a friend who had a connection and could get me and my now three-month old baby into one of the most coveted parenting classes in town. Through the social status and connections of my new mom friend, I was added to the list and eventually found myself in “the” baby class in the Valley.

A few months into the class, the teacher started talking about preschool. She was saying that if we hadn’t done so already, we should choose a preschool for our child and put our name on the waiting list. My daughter was barely 18 months old and once again, I felt that pang of worry that we were behind. I was a first-time parent and new to the city so I was experiencing a higher than usual level of anxiety since I was still settling in and finding my way. But hearing that preschool mattered only amped up my anxiety. I didn’t have the luxury of time to figure out who my child was and what type of school suited her best! I needed to act — and immediately! Thankfully I had help again. Our teacher had a list of the top schools we should apply to and walked us through how to ensure we get in to one of them. It was all above board — no back room deals or illicit payments. Just good advice and of course being able to tell the preschools that we had a good “resume” having come from “that” baby class. Unbeknownst to me, I was playing my first round in the elite school race that continued into elementary school.

By second grade at our local public elementary school, I remember hearing other parents boasting about how their child had received “the folder”. Apparently certain kids are selected to take a special test based on their grades, to determine if they are “gifted” and therefore eligible for the various gifted programs available through our school district. Sure enough, the familiar prick of fear and inadequacy started to creep in, but this time there was nothing I could do about it. My daughter, while bright and good at school, was not “gifted”. I felt annoyed that the system streamed kids into categories at such a young age, while simultaneously feeling like a failure for not being allowed into this special group and fear about what it might mean for her future.

By middle school, we had moved both of our kids to a private school after finding that the one-size-fits-all education at public school wasn’t working for them. Here too, I would overhear parents boasting about their kids’ grades and accomplishments. It was only when I shared that my kids sometimes struggled that other parents would admit in a hushed tone that their children had tutors multiple times a week or that they had actually done their child’s science project for them. I didn’t want to have to step in for my kids like that since their grades didn’t matter enough to me — not because I didn’t care about how they were doing but because I have always felt that grades were an unfair measure of intelligence and ability. My instinct was to focus on effort and improvement instead. However, in spite of feeling strongly about this, I simultaneously worried once again that it might mean my kids were not keeping up and what this might result in long term. While the acute sense of anxiety around my children excelling lifted, it continued to linger in the background throughout middle school, like a bad spirit not willing to be exorcised.

Once high school rolled around, the race kicked back into high gear. My eldest daughter is currently in 10th grade and not a day has gone by since she started, that she hasn’t brought up college in one way or another. As a result of these ongoing experiences, when we heard about the recent college admissions scandal, neither my daughter or I were in the least bit surprised. If I’m honest, I have to admit that my first thought was to feel badly for these people. Not sympathy since what they had done was immoral, not to mention illegal. However, I felt empathy for the degree of fear, angst and unworthiness I imagined these people must have felt to get to the point of taking these extreme measures in order to get ahead. The behavior was clearly wrong, but I could understand the impulse behind it since, like me, they had probably also started competing in the elite academic race before even signing their kids up for preschool. And they had likely spent close to 18 years working towards the goal of securing their child’s future by producing a student who looked good on a college application. The end goal from day one was always getting one’s child into a good college. Wasn’t that my goal too? Although I could never imagine feeling desperate enough to cheat to achieve this objective, I didn’t demonize these people right off the bat since I could relate too closely to what I assumed were the impulses behind their behavior — supposedly wanting the best for your child. However, after much thought, I’ve come to understand that the problem is so much more complex.

Firstly, the drive to get your child into a top school doesn’t inherently focus on what’s best for the child. Even if the presumption is that an elite college will lead to greater opportunities for your child and consequently, a greater ability to achieve wealth and influence, this focus comes at the expense of allowing the child to find his/her purpose, passion and place in the world. When the focus is so much on ticking the boxes to achieve the prize of college, it fails to address why kids want to go to college in the first place, let alone what they might want to do once they’re there. Author and professor William Deresiewicz (Excellent Sheep) who we interviewed for our episode on the college crisis, believes that part of the problem with the education system now is that so many kids are ending up in college with no sense of purpose and therefore are becoming depressed, anxious and losing their way. He insists that we need to be asking harder, more meaningful questions of kids such as, “What do you care about? What are your strengths? What do you want to get good at? What positive impact do you want to have on the world?” This way, even if these students do end up at an elite college, they will hopefully have a clearer sense of why they are there and not just be left waving a certificate of academic excellence that holds no real meaning to them.

It’s true that college in general is much harder to get into, not just the elite colleges. There is increasing competition for a select number of spots at colleges across the country which has created a real pressure on students to work much harder in order to get in to what used to be accessible to most kids with an average GPA. Although there is no doubt many of these schools have incredible specialty programs or professors who are leaders in their fields, research has shown that white, educated middle class families are already at a big advantage in the application process and that this advantage continues into the workplace so that going to a top college doesn’t even really make a tangible difference in these kids’ lives[1]. Given this reality, what then is behind the drive to get in to these schools? In most cases, I would argue it’s about the parents’ fears and wishes. I would also argue that it’s about parental egos and status. Being able to tell your friends at a dinner party that your son or daughter got accepted to Yale is often perceived as a reflection on the parents having done a good job.

Despite being aware of how misguided the academic race is, this pressure to keep up with the Joneses and the sense of not feeling good enough has never fully gone away for me. No matter how much I tell myself not to get caught up in the insanity of this drive to the top, I continue to struggle with the feeling that we are not keeping up. When everyone else around me is hiring tutors and college consultants and finding ways to give their child an advantage, I worry that we might be failing our daughter if we don’t do the same. But every so often, when I force myself to stop and look at what I’m feeling and break it down, I realize this fear is more rooted in my own sense of not being good enough than anything else and that this crazy race should not be about me but about my daughter and helping her find her way in the world.

I’m guessing the discomfort with feelings of inadequacy and fear of not being good enough, is likely what drove some of the people in the college admissions scandal to cheat. The idea that their kids are not the best of the best, perhaps felt like a reflection on them and made them feel imperfect, inadequate and like failures. However, it’s important to consider that while sitting in the discomfort of these feelings can be hard and painful, it’s undoubtedly a lot more comfortable then jail. Even more importantly, the message we send our kids by making college acceptance about us and our egos is that they don’t matter and that they are not good enough for who they are. If we judge our children on being the best they can be and allow them the space to explore, take risks and God forbid, even fail, might they not be better prepared to be successful in life? I want my children to have less of the anxiety I have over feelings of inadequacy and for them to find happiness from living a life of purpose and meaning since ultimately, no number of degrees from Harvard, Stanford or Yale will make them happy but a life of purpose? That’s worth working for.




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