Last week’s college admissions scandal that has nearly three dozen parents facing criminal charges and possible prison time has struck a chord, leaving even the most cynical parents gobsmacked and wondering: How did we get here?
Over the past 20 years, parent involvement in the college process has soared, as has the stress and anxiety that comes with it. In some families, college prep has even trickled down to elementary school, with parents specializing children as young as six in sports and private tutoring, hoping for an edge that could one day lead to a leg up in the competitive admissions process.
Lacy Crawford, a former private college adviser, says she saw firsthand how far some parents are willing to go. One mother met with her privately and asked if her Caucasian daughter could check the African American box on the optional ethnicity section of the application. Crawford told her no. A desperate father took out a checkbook and offered Crawford $15,000, right in front of his son, to scrap his son’s essays and write them herself. She declined.
While it is rare for parents to resort to outright illegal activity around the college admissions process, many more parents engage in more subtle forms of dishonesty, such as paying off a psychiatrist for a fake learning-disability diagnosis so a child can get more time on standardized tests, or letting their own voice intrude too much in college essays, says Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the faculty director of the Making Caring Common Project.
Weissbourd is the lead author of a new report that calls on parents and schools to use their influence to encourage a more ethical and less stressful approach to the college process. It offers concrete steps that middle schools, high schools and parents can take. Titled “Turn the Tide II,” it is the second of four reports that Making Caring Common will be publishing in a campaign to dramatically change college admissions.
The college admissions process is really a test for parents, Weissbourd says. “The test isn’t to see if you can get your kid into a high-status college,” he says. “It’s a test of ethical character — and a lot of parents are failing that test.”
Parents who blame “the process” as a way of getting themselves off the hook for engaging in dishonest or immoral behavior need to hold themselves to a higher standard, Weissbourd says. It’s a parent’s natural reflex to say, ‘I have to do what’s best for my kid,’" he says. But with that, we also need to be concerned about other people’s children, about fairness, about what it means to be a good person and a good member of the community, he says. “I worry that too many parents have lost that.”
In light of the recent news, Weissbourd says his hope is that parents will take an honest look at their actions, see some of themselves in these extreme cases, and be inspired to change. Parents influence every step of the college admissions process, from college preparation and selection to the applications. Here is Weissbourd’s advice on what parents can do to make it more ethical, and less stressful.
Keep the focus on your teen. Working to choose and apply to colleges offers an opportunity to get to know your teen in a deeper way — what they hope for, are drawn to and value in themselves. However, when parents view their teen’s college choice as sign of their parenting success, not only do they sideline their teens’ needs, they may also shame a child for not living up to a parent’s high expectations. Parents need to do the difficult work of disentangling their wishes from their teen’s and overcoming their own parenting blind spots by talking honestly to people they trust. Stay alert to red flags, such as constantly assessing what your child’s course load and activities mean for their college applications, or being more engaged in the process than your child is. Keep things in check by asking your teen what role they would like you to play and have them tell you when your involvement is more harmful than helpful.
Follow your ethical GPS. When parents allow teens to misrepresent themselves or are involved in that dishonesty, it deprives children of the moral leadership they need and can erode trust. It also sends the message that what they are is not enough. Rather than looking away or dismissing misrepresentations as trivial, parents need to ask themselves hard questions, like: Is this college more important than my teen’s or my own integrity? It’s also important to ask teens why they feel pressured to cheat or misrepresent themselves and to think through how you can help alleviate that pressure.
Use this as an opportunity for ethical education. Applying to college can be an eye-opening experience for teens in all the wrong ways, such as the unfairness of favoring donor and legacy students or athletes over others. Many teens also struggle with how much to embellish their accomplishments to “play the game” without compromising their own integrity. These types of ethical questions offer powerful opportunities to engage teens in thinking about why well-intentioned people create systems that may be unethical and what may be done to remedy it. Teach teens how to present themselves in ways that will be attractive to admissions officers while still being authentic — a skill they will need throughout their lives.
Be authentic yourself. When parents fail to have honest conversations, they diminish their role as trusted guides and mentors. Many parents underestimate what a relief it would be for their teen if they spoke honestly about their own sometimes irrational feelings about the college application process. It’s important for parents to manage their own disappointment when their teen is, say, rejected from a college. But if a parent is visibly upset, they can be forthright and admit that they were too caught up in the college’s status and that these are their own issues to work out.
Help your teen contribute to others in meaningful ways. Instead of encouraging your child to take expensive volunteer trips to boost their resume, parents can explore community service that would be more meaningful to their teen. Discuss broader issues, such as why one does service. Talk to your teen about their experiences while volunteering: What are they learning? Do they feel helpful?
Advocate for elevating ethical character and reducing achievement-related distress. Parents need to step up to advance a different vision, such as pressing high schools to expose students to a wider variety of colleges and to stop touting the number of their students accepted to highly selective colleges. In its place, suggest they track and publicize the number of graduates who report satisfaction and engagement at college, which research suggests is a better marker of later life success. Mobilize other parents to advocate for change too, such as limiting advanced courses and setting limits on the amount of time students devote to extracurricular activities.
Model and encourage gratitude. Many teens and parents never stop to experience or express gratitude for the tremendous opportunity to attend college — an opportunity that a great many in this country and in the world don’t have or can’t afford. Broaden your child’s moral lens by pointing out their advantages and ask them to consider the larger questions of justice these advantages raise. Encourage your teen to be grateful to the people who have helped them reach this point — such as their teachers, counselors and other adults who may not be on their radar. As parents, we can step back and do the same.