The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The college-admissions scandal rattled rich parents. But will it change them?

(Washington Post Illustration/iStock)

“Take a deep breath in,” Kim Digilio told the mothers of Manhattan Beach, a seaside California community of posh mansions, panoramic views and unspeakable status anxiety.

“And a long breath out.”

The women exhaled. They had come to the sunny fitness studio on a Wednesday morning in search of perspective. A few weeks earlier, an FBI operation had arrested 33 parents for allegedly participating in a massive college admissions scam to get their kids into prestigious colleges. (Thirteen of them have pleaded guilty.) The methods described by law enforcement were bold: Athletic coaches had been bribed, test answers had been surreptitiously fixed, headshots of applicants had been Photoshopped onto the bodies of recruitable athletes.

It was a sensational case that laid bare the lengths to which some rich parents would go to make sure their kids would not become casualties of meritocracy.

The epicenter of the scandal was about an hour south of the fitness studio. Spiritually, it was even closer. Like all parents, the mothers and fathers of Manhattan Beach want the best for their kids; they are also part of a subset of American families who, buoyed by privilege and disposable wealth, are loath to settle for anything less. Acceptance letters from name-brand college were in high demand.

Taking a Deep Breath? Not so much.

How about now? As news of the college-admissions scandal broke, ripples of chatter emanated from wealthy enclaves of the United States. In prep-school hallways and soccer field sidelines and Whole Foods parking lots and renovated kitchens with island cooktops and under-cabinet lighting, the One Percent talked with itself and its paid advisers about what the whole thing meant.

They had long been consumed by the importance of tests, the numerical scores that they believed would determine their children’s futures. But the aftermath of the college admissions scandal felt like an entirely different kind of test — this time, for parents. Would they loosen their grips on the crazy-making college admissions process, the oppressive expectations that allegedly drove their peers to criminal acts?

Or would they hold on tighter than ever?

Digilio, a yoga and meditation instructor who in a past life was a Princeton University admissions officer, had invited the Manhattan Beach mothers to the studio to consider the grip-loosening option. She guided them to close their eyes, to revisit their own memories of studying for tests and applying to colleges, then asked them to draw a line between themselves and their kids.

“I want you to own this experience as your experience, and not your child’s experience,” Digilio says she told them. “This process now is for them, this is their journey.”

But some parents have a hard time letting go, even when their grip seems to be hurting their kids.

The scandal has brought some horror stories to the surface. At a gathering of college consultants, Wendie Lubic, a consultant based in the Washington area, heard a colleague tell about advising a family to focus on finding a supportive college for their kid, who had attempted suicide more than once. “The parents said, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh,’ ” Lubic remembers the colleague telling her, “and then loaded up the kid’s list with high-achieving schools, and lo and behold the kid has ended up with eight denials.”

Lubic has seen her own clients confuse unhealthy obsession with attentive parenting. “I had a parent spend a lot of money and make her kid take the ACT seven times,” she says, “which I consider borderline abuse.”

The college admissions scandal is more proof that helicopter parenting hurts kids

How to explain this? Maybe parents aren’t just trying to meet the academic needs of their kids. They’re also trying to meet their own needs.

“Whatever choices we make as a parent, we know we are going to be judged,” says Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever — and What to Do About It.” An acceptance letter from a well-respected college, like an honor-roll bumper sticker, gives them a parenting gold star.

This can turn the expectations-management game upside down. In late March somebody claiming to be a high school senior posted on College Confidential, an anonymous message board on which high school students and their parents seek candid advice about the application process. The student, who claimed to have a grade-point average above 4.0 and a 1310 on the SAT, had just been rejected by five of seven University of California colleges, including UC-Davis, and was worried about the emotional devastation . . . for the student’s mother.

“She also has a lot of her friends’ children go to Davis and keeps saying how happy they are,” the student wrote. “I tell her that each college is different for each person. . . . Nothing seems to be working and she just keeps on nagging and yelling at me, while also having restless nights with tears.”

After the scandal broke, people talked a lot about doors.

There’s the “back door,” which you unlock with traditional plutocratic gestures, such as making a generous donation to the college.

There’s the “side door,” which apparently you finagle open with bribery and Photoshop.

And then there’s the “front door,” which everybody else has to cram themselves through.

People in Manhattan Beach whispered about which doors their friends might have been using, says Franca Stadvec, who co-owns the fitness studio where Digilio teaches. Many people knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who was among the accused. There were mirthless jokes about peers whose kids had been admitted by the colleges caught up in the scandal. So, they would say, has the FBI been to your house yet?

Most wealthy parents have to settle for sending their kids through the front door armed with every legal advantage money can buy — private schooling, private academic tutoring, private athletic coaching, the ease and confidence that comes with a lifetime spent in the hallways of privilege.

Their parents dragged them into the college bribery scandal. Can a PR expert pull these kids out?

There is perhaps a world where those parents see the scandal at the side door as a referendum on how bad things have gotten at the front door. Wasn’t it all part of the same phenomenon of parents keeping an iron grip on their kids’ lives at a time when they ought to be learning, for everyone’s sake, to start letting go?

Take a deep breath in. And a long breath out.

“This is our reckoning,” says Lewis. “This is our opportunity to stop and check our own morals and ethics. Are we ‘editing’ our kids’ essays, but really rewriting them? Are we doing things that are on that slippery slope?”

There is another world, a more plausible one, in which the bribery scandal is too exotic to hold any lessons for rich parents who might see their own tactics as virtuous simply because they are not illegal.

“I worry that this story is so egregious and bad,” says Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project, “that parents won’t see themselves in it.”

Meanwhile, the crushing pressure of the college application process has distorted how their kids see themselves.

Ned Johnson says he recently had to talk down a high school student who thought he’d ruined his future by getting a few B’s and C’s on tests during his junior year. “They’re terrified of making a mistake,” says Johnson, the president of a D.C. tutoring company, “in some ways because they’ve never made one. Never been allowed to make them.”

When it came to making herself presentable to elite colleges, another student, B, had made no discernible mistakes.

The Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School senior earned a near-perfect SAT score. She had stacked her schedule with International Baccalaureate and advanced-placement classes and got A’s in every one of them. She’d done it all without the benefit of private tutoring. And in the end she was rewarded with offers of admission from one Ivy League university and an honors program at a top research university.

However, B, who asked to be referred to by her first initial, came away from the college admissions process feeling disillusioned. On what’s known as “Ivy Night” when the nation’s top schools announce admissions decisions, her one Ivy acceptance was coupled with five rejections, four from the Ivy League and one from Duke. The next day she learned that some classmates with equally stellar credentials received similar rejections, while kids with lower marks got into their top-choice schools.

The high school senior felt lucky to get into two great colleges but still wondered what, exactly, she could have done differently. Been more boastful in her essay, perhaps? “The whole process makes no sense,” she says. “I’m genuinely baffled.”

Colleges’ message to ease student stress: Failure is normal

The college admissions process is baffling. Kids with “perfect” applications get rejected all the time. That’s part of what made the bribery scandal such a sensation: Instead of paying to mold their kids into perfect applicants, the parents embroiled in the scandal allegedly paid to make sure their imperfect kids got in.

Meaning some front-door perfectionist must have been rejected.

At the Cambridge School of Weston, a $50,000-per-year prep school outside Boston, some students wondered about what the FBI revelations might mean for them.

Madeleine Rimer, a 17 year-old senior, says the scandal has made her reflect on all the advantages she and her classmates already have. Weston provides in-house college counseling for its students and their parents. It offers courses titled “The Art of Prediction” and “Love: Chemistry or Culture?” It prepares students to succeed in college, no matter where they go.

But for some Weston students, the scandal immediately felt like a threat to their prospects. “A lot of my friends have been talking,” Rimer says, “about how, ‘If I get rejected from somewhere, is it due to some other kid whose family put more money down, or had an unfair advantage in the process?’ ”

Tighten the grip, or loosen the grip?

Side door, front door . . . or emergency exit?

The week after the scandal hit the news, Sue Moller, a high school guidance counselor in Long Island, was at a conference of college counselors. She remembers a colleague wondering aloud about whether the controversy might hurt the private admissions-coaching industry. “And then,” she says, “another college counselor said that the next day after the story broke they got 10 times the amount of calls that they normally get in the day.”

Demand had not ebbed. Actually, it might have increased. “I think the story could actually be feeding the frenzy,” Moller says, “because people get so scared about this process.”

The market for Taking a Deep Breath, meanwhile, remains mostly untested.

In Manhattan Beach, Kim Digilio is starting small. When the yoga instructor made a flier for her mindfulness session for stressed-out parents, she took a friend’s advice and emphasized her degrees from Princeton and Northwestern. She also promised to talk front-door strategy with the parents (albeit in a “holistic” way). Digilio is under no illusions about what she’s up against. “It feels like we’re at this slippery point,” she says, “where many people are already returning to their old behaviors.”

She’s planning to hold more sessions, in Manhattan Beach and nearby Orange County. And even though the first gathering was promoted with only a handful of fliers and Facebook, 10 mothers showed up on a weekday morning. That was something.

Rebecca Dalton, a mother of two, was one of them. One of her sons plays volleyball, a sport that theoretically might give him a chance to be recruited by a college coach. But she can tell he’s not having fun, that it’s not really “playing” anymore. He says he feels burned out and wants to stop, to try something else instead. She worries that quitting is “a big risk,” she says.

“It’s all so incredibly intense and competitive,” she says. “You feel like you can’t trust anyone, you feel like you need to be participating in all these different areas and activities to keep your child on par.”

Digilio’s counsel — about letting her kids’ college process be about what they want, not about what she or a hypothetical admissions officer might want — came as a relief. Dalton feels more at peace about letting her son choose to quit his sport, resolved that his happiness is paramount.

She’s not sure other parents would let go so willingly.

“This is just so ingrained in everyone’s brain,” she says. “I don’t think these people know how to stop.”