One of the biggest stories that broke this week was a jaw-dropping admissions scandal involving celebrities, CEOs, college coaches, and some of the most prestigious universities in the country. The groundbreaking case will have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. It is also an exclamation-point lesson in parenting.
In a nutshell, wealthy parents have been charged with paying a “college prep service” to bribe college coaches and administrators to ensure that children were admitted to elite schools.
The numbers are astounding. New facts are still coming to light, but it appears as if children from more than 750 families benefitted from the plot. A plot that has ensnared elite universities like Yale, Stanford, USC, UCLA, and Georgetown, among others.
Georgetown University, here in the Washington, DC area, allegedly designated close to a dozen students as tennis players worthy of admission – students who didn’t even play tennis.
Some students were photographed on rowing machines to make it look as if they were crew athletes on their applications. And others’ faces were photoshopped onto the bodies of actual athletes.
The ringleader of the scheme, William Singer, reportedly received upwards of $25 million to bribe these kids into college.
And law enforcement says the story is not over and more may be to come.
Five Shades Of Crazy
There is so much about this scandal that is astonishing, infuriating, and just plain sad. I hurt on many levels for the many people who have been touched by this case. There are five things that continue to bother me as I keep reading about all of this. Because of how nuts this case is, I’m calling them the “five shades of crazy.” Here they are:
1. The kids who studied and worked hard for years only to be overlooked in favor of a kid whose parents paid a bribe. When I talked about this with my stepkids, this was the point they felt strongest about. They work hard to make good grades in the hopes that one day they will get into a college that’s the right fit for them. And they found it supremely unfair that someone might get admitted over them just because they cheated the system. I agree!
Families with money already have an edge in college admissions. They can hire tutors and educational consultants. That may seem unfair to some, but at least those services help kids do their best. The students still have to take the tests, make the grades and write the admission essays on their own.
2. The kids who didn’t know their parents paid a bribe. How devastating must this be for the kids who had no idea their parents pushed them along illegally? These poor kids have to discover – in a very embarrassing and public fashion – that they got into an elite school, not because of their own merit, but because their jerk parents cheated the system.
And these poor kids will surely feel like their parents didn’t have faith in their abilities or think they could get admitted on their own. Isn’t one of our main jobs as parents to shore up our kids’ confidence and be their biggest cheerleader? Teaching them how to behave, but letting them succeed on their own and being there for them if they stumble.
If you’re doing that, but behind their back paying bribes to help them succeed, you’ve robbed them of one of the biggest learning experiences of going to college, which is to fully experience your own success and failure.
3. The kids who did know their parents paid a bribe. What a terrible example that’s being set for these kids – that the only way to get ahead is to lie and cheat the system. What kind of people will these poor kids turn out to be and how will their mindset ever change?
Will the parents express remorse to their children and urge them not to follow in their example? And if so, has the damage already been done and these kids will think that’s how they should get ahead? Or will the parents tell the kids that the system is unfair and that they only made sure the children got what they were entitled to? Either way, it seems hard to believe that these kids are being sent into the world with any kind of moral compass.
4. The thousands of kids who are currently working hard to prepare for college in the future. Like my stepkids. Our kids have a complete understanding of right and wrong, and a deep sense of it. They know that lying and cheating are wrong. And it wouldn’t occur to them to get into college in any way other than working hard for good grades.
We are doing everything we can to get them ready for college. We talk to them about their class selection each spring, we regularly check in and discuss their tests, their homework, their grades. And as college approaches, we’ll do visits with them, talk to them about how to narrow down choices that fit their interests and skills, and make sure they apply on deadline. What we will not be doing is writing essays for them or paying someone to take their SATs or paying someone to lie about their skills.
5. The question of why an elite university was the only option. If the children of these families couldn’t get into an elite school on their own merit, why weren’t they encouraged to go somewhere where they could succeed? Why was an elite school their only option?
Parents are trying to set their kids up for success. But for the ultrawealthy, it’s even more than that. It’s a mark of status for their children to attend an elite university. And they want their kids at least to appear to have gotten in on merit rather than because they endowed a chair or named a building.
Look, I can understand wanting your child to have all the options in life that come along with going to a school like Yale or Stanford. But because it is such a mark of status to attend one of those schools, these people were willing to do whatever it takes to get their kids there rather than be proud of them wherever they go. And sure seems like these students are not being set up to succeed if they’re over their head at a school where they didn’t get in on merit.
There are hundreds of thousands of people who succeed without going to an ivy league school. I am a (proud) product of the University of South Carolina (Go Gamecocks!) and I got a great education there. An education that set me up to attend a great law school and to have a long and successful career.
What’s Going To Happen?
The parents are in deep trouble. Many have been arrested and charged. It’s still unclear what will happen to the kids implicated in this scandal. Prosecutors aren’t going after them. Two of the kids have already dropped out of USC and I expect others will do the same. Schools seem to be looking at the kids on a case-by-case basis, but it remains to be seen how many of them will get to continue their education at the schools that admitted them based on false information.
William Singer, the alleged ringleader, has cooperated with law enforcement. I’m guessing he’ll receive some level of punishment, but likely far less than he would have received without helping authorities bust the whole scheme.
All indications are that the schools weren’t aware they were being scammed. The universities have apparently launched their own investigations into the children involved to determine how to handle them. Which they should.
I believe we’ll be hearing about this case for a long time to come.
What Are We Teaching Our Kids?
At its core, this case is about wealthy families buying admission for their children that the kids did not earn. These parents had power and fame and influence and were using that to benefit their kids.
But for me, it begs the overall question: what are we teaching our kids?
Are we teaching them to win at all costs? That college isn’t worth it unless you go to the best school around, even if you won’t succeed there?
There seems to be (rightly) a lot of outrage against the parents involved in the scandal. Their kids have been allowed to jump the line ahead of kids who have been preparing for years to apply for college, sweating it out over acceptances and wondering what their future will look like.
And every kid involved is being robbed. Kids who do the work and get passed over for these kinds of cheaters, but also the kids of the families involved in the scandal.
It goes without saying that we should teach our kids that getting ahead does not involve lying or cheating. We should also teach our kids about the opportunity for self-examination that comes with applying to college. Asking themselves what they’re about, who they are, what they want to do. If you’re cheating on the SAT’s for your kid, how is their college experience going to go when they show up at a school that they are vastly unqualified to be at?
Talk To Your Kids About The Case
I think this case is a great opportunity to have a discussion with kids about what it means to work hard to get ahead and why taking the easy way out is usually wrong.
My stepdaughter is in the final months of middle school, and is preparing for high school. She has talked to me a lot about college and is very focused on her long-term future. Very different than where I was at her age, for sure. I think I was solely focused on spending time talking with my friends about which boys were the cutest. (I think my stepdaughter does her fair share of that also; she’s just way more focused on academics than I was.)
I want my stepkids all to go to great schools – with diverse groups of students who have also worked hard to get there. But I want their path to be the best path for them. Whether that’s a stellar university, a community college, or no college (gasp), I want them to be happy, productive, contributing members of society.
Let’s all use this as an opportunity to have an open, frank conversation with our kids about what it means to get ahead in life – as a good person.