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Consumed by competition, parents fuel a college admissions game that few can play

Gordon Caplan of Greenwich, Conn., is accused of paying a test supervisor to correct answers on his daughter’s ACT exam. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

A few years ago, Ned Johnson and another college counselor were working with a client’s child, preparing the high school student for the college admissions process.

How much could we pay you, the parents asked Johnson, founder of D.C.-based PrepMatters, and the college counselor, to ensure you work with our child only, and no other students in the class at this high school?

“I was gobsmacked,” Johnson said. “Fortunately, the conversation didn’t continue.”

Not all college admissions stories involve millions of dollars in bribes and faked SAT scores, like those the FBI alleged in charges revealed Tuesday against 50 people, including 33 parents. But the lengths to which some parents will go to secure their child’s future are no surprise to those in the college prep world. Whether they are calling admissions offices to try to disparage other applicants, writing their child’s college essay for them or forcing their teen to add harp lessons to an already crowded after-school schedule, parents can easily be consumed by the competition.

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It’s notable, of course, that the system leans toward families of means — that middle- or lower-income parents may feel they have no sway in the process when they don’t have a legacy at a higher institution or extra funds for tutors or test prep. Now even upper-middle-class families are realizing that the system can leave them out, too.

Julia Beck, a writer and mother of four in the District, said she made every effort to support her children as they prepared for college. She hired coaches to help them with their admissions essays and their test scores, and she coordinated with their high school’s college placement office.

But when her daughter, now 22, auditioned for competitive theater programs, Beck hadn’t thought to employ the expertise of someone who could help guide her through that involved process. She discovered that other parents had. And it seemed to Beck that the extra help might have made a difference.

“There are specialists who cost a fortune who can help you through every little bit of this process, and I didn’t hire a specialist to help us with the drama program,” she says, adding sarcastically, “Shame on me! But I did think, ‘Why didn’t I know more about this? Why didn’t I hire a specialist, why didn’t I know more about how this process works?’ ”

Of course, there’s another method for those with means, known as back-door admissions, which usually includes a donation.

When James Patti, principal of higher-education consulting firm JWP Consulting Solutions, was new to the field, he learned about the back door. Patti was working at a big-name college when a donor offered a major gift. About six months later, that donor’s son applied to the school. Patti was assigned the task of calling this donor to let him know his son wasn’t going to be accepted. “I’ll never forget him coughing and swallowing hard and saying, ‘Thank you for the call,’ ” Patti said.

That entry into the college admissions world stuck with him. “I wondered to myself, ‘Would previous generations of American parents do this?’ . . . Maybe I’m naive, but I find this abhorrent and fundamentally unfair to the child,” he said.

Patti has twin 16-year-olds who are starting the process of finding the right college. “As an insider, I know how it works, but I don’t want to get too involved,” he said. And yet seeing the ways in which others help their children get into college, “I worry that they won’t get their fair shake.”

His worries are legitimate. “Just because it showed up yesterday doesn’t mean it’s new,” said Juda Engelmayer, crisis communications manager and president of Herald PR. He works with recipients of “wrongful admissions,” as he calls the students who land a spot in college thanks to shady practices, typically by relatives. “If you’re going to get a job in finance or law, and they find news that a relative paid to get you in [to college], you’re not going to get a job,” he said. “So some of the work we do is search engine optimization to make names look better on search engines, so when Goldman Sachs does a search on these students, they won’t readily find they were a beneficiary of this.”

He’s seen it all. He recalled one story of a “taxi magnate” dropping $100,000 in cash on the desk of a university president to get his son into the school. According to Engelmayer, the son got in and then failed miserably. “It wasn’t the right place for him.”

So is the current scandal rare? Not exactly. “The fact that it’s been blowing up the last couple days is probably better for some of my clientele, because it’s not looked at as a singular issue, but one of many.”

Kimberly Digilio, a 44-year-old mother of two in California who worked for two years in Princeton University’s admissions office after graduating from the school in 1995, recalls a vague awareness of the “other” applications: “I was a low-level entry admissions officer, but even then, you knew that there were some applications that were always kept separate,” she said, adding, “Those were the back-door applications.”

Digilio wasn’t exposed to the world of million-dollar donations, but she still saw the efforts some families made to try to curry favor. There were the bulging application packets crammed with every official recognition or award a student had ever received (“If you drew a fat folder, you were like, ‘Oh, my God, here we go.’ ”) There were the gimmicky, effusive essays, the baskets of fancy foods. She still remembers the box of gourmet sandwiches cut into the shape of the letter “P” for Princeton.

“Parents want to open doors for their children. Some open doors, while some bulldoze walls,” said Jen Henson, founder of Jen Henson ACT Prep, based outside Houston.

She tutors students remotely from her home. But there was that time parents called her for prep advice, and instead of doing the tutoring remotely, they flew their son to her from Connecticut. He stayed in a small hotel in her tiny town (no, we don’t have Uber, she had to tell him) and they worked for eight hours a day over a long weekend.

Typically, her test prep costs $800 to $2,000, when she meets with a student once a week for about three months. She says this family spent about four times that.

The result? His ACT scores went up, and he won the one open slot in a program for just 11 students. “People want to help their children. You can’t fault them for that,” she said.

Still, that relatable impulse only fuels the competitive intensity that clouds the college application process, and leaves dedicated parents — and students — feeling that they’re not doing enough.

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And that pressure now seeps into family life earlier than ever. Digilio, the former Princeton admissions officer, is now the mother of a middle-schooler and a high school freshman in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and she sees the pressure of the looming college years from a different perspective. She’s put rules in place so her 12-year-old daughter can’t obsessively check her grades online like some of her classmates do. Her ninth-grade son, despite his strong academic record, recently told her that he worried he’d fall behind if he didn’t enroll in summer school. Other parents have told Digilio about apps that allow them to calculate exactly what score their child would need to get on a test to secure an A in class. Talk of college visits and test-prep coaches often dominates chatter in line at the grocery store or coffee shop.

“Everybody is already trying to get that leg up, that advantage,” she says. “People feed off each other’s anxieties and stresses, there’s no question.”

She tries to steer clear of all that. Nine years ago, after she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, Digilio — a self-identified overachiever with an Ivy League pedigree and an MBA from Northwestern — changed careers and became a yoga and meditation instructor.

Now she tries to help others find the same peace she did, and even holds mindfulness workshops to support teens in her community.

“These parents will sign up their kids — ‘Oh, my gosh, my son is super-stressed, my daughter is super-stressed, they really need to take this class,’ ” she says. “But most of the time, it’s the parents who really need it, too. They’re the ones who need mindfulness and wellness and perspective.”

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