As 3.6 million high school seniors in the United States prepare to receive their diplomas in the coming months, research tells us that nearly 70 percent of them will be enrolled in college in the fall. Of those, it is safe to say that a significant number experienced some version of existential angst over the past few months about what schools they will get into, how much aid they will receive and how much debt they will need to take on to get a degree. It has become a national rite of passage of sorts for high school seniors.
That annual ritual took a salacious turn last month. Reports about college admissions fraud involving 33 parents—including highly successful people in the fields of business and entertainment—revealed the extent to which some will allegedly go to get their children admitted to elite colleges like Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. Understandably, the story has been covered widely and has inspired a good deal of social media chatter. But it would be a waste if all we took away from this is water cooler gossip about how—in real life—Aunt Becky of “Full House” (Lori Loughlin) and Lynette of “Desperate Housewives” (Felicity Huffman) are just over-indulged Hollywood stars. The truth is, this episode tells us far more about who we are and where we are heading as a culture.
As the co-author of The Freshman Survival Guide, a book about students making the transition from high school to college, I have focused on approaches to college life that deal with the whole student—mind, body and spirit. I have looked at a lot of research over the years about the increasing levels of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues among college students who are desperate to achieve. But something about this college admissions fraud felt dark and different. It seemed as if those rising levels of stress and anxiety had breached the campus walls and were now spilling over and infecting parents in strange and disturbing ways as well.
The American dream of upward mobility—once an article of faith for many—has become far more selective in terms of its beneficiaries.
“It’s easy to tell ourselves that this corruption is just about rich people and has nothing to do with us, but I think there’s a broader context,” my friend Robert Anthony Siegel, a writer and professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington, told me. Mr. Siegel believes that parents and students alike are all too aware that the middle class in the United States is eroding and that deep anxiety about the future is leading families to develop “an almost mystical faith in name-brand universities as a ticket to security. It’s a response to a world that is increasingly uncertain and scary—a winner-take-all kind of world. It is a sign of desperation.”
At dinner event a few days later, a Villanova professor put this economic anxiety in stark relief, commenting that it was painful to see how tense students were about the future and how they were anxious that their college degree would not necessarily put them on the “right side” of the blue collar/white collar divide. I found it interesting that students would frame the issue in terms of their perceptions of class. It struck me that perhaps they are allergic to whatever it is that makes people—to their mind—poor because they have been raised in a culture that blames poverty on the poor themselves? Their own perceived arrival in that class would deeply complicate that narrative.
Their economic fears are not unfounded given that middle-class incomes over the past 50 years have remained relatively stagnant while the top quintile of Americans have seen a staggering 95 percent income growth over the same period. According to Pew Research, nearly 60 percent of Americans believe that children today will be worse off than their parents. The actual economic data is more troubling. According to researchers at Harvard, 90 percent of children born in 1940 grew up to experience higher incomes than their parents; that proportion shrinks to 50 percent among those born in the 1980s. The American dream of upward mobility—once an article of faith for many—has become far more selective in terms of its beneficiaries.
“Most parents probably have done something they’re not proud of to help their precious darling have an easier time in this unnecessarily cruel and competitive world.”
Those beneficiaries have helped create an educational consulting industry that boasted $1.9 billion in revenues in 2018 and employed nearly 40,000 people. It should come as no surprise that the admission industrial complex favors middle- and upper-class kids and that students from minority and economically challenged backgrounds are disproportionately left out in this mad dash for admissions and access.
“America watched this scandal unfold with a queasy blend of schadenfreude and envy,” said NPR education correspondentAnya Kamenetz. “The truth is that most parents probably have done something they’re not proud of in order to help their precious darling have an easier time in this unnecessarily cruel and competitive world.”
It goes without saying that parents want what is best for their children, but it is sobering—and humbling—when the ethical and moral traps inherent in that desire only become apparent after you are already ensnared in them.
“Cheating to get your kid into college is egregious,” said Ms. Kamenetz, “but most of the privileged and well-meaning folks I know think nothing of purchasing their child access to a private school education, special tutoring and test prep, fancy extracurriculars or an expensive house in a ‘nice’ school district, instead of working hard to lift all boats.”
Ms. Kamenetz’s book DIY U lays out an alternative, more egalitarian vision of college that explores the ways innovative ideas, institutions and technologies are transforming the experience for the 80 percent of Americans who do not attend elite schools.
“Admission to any one school or any tier of schools is not worth jeopardizing a young person’s emotional or physical well-being.”
Another ambitious—if more conventional—idea comes out of the Making Caring Common project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. M.C.C. surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students and the results revealed what researchers described as the “rhetoric/reality gap.” What they discovered was a huge disconnect between what parents tell their kids they should value versus the actual messages they send through their own behavior. Making Caring Common cites research that indicates that 96 percent of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children and claim that moral character is “very important, if not essential,” while 80 percent of students surveyed reported that their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.”
“This [project] is about who we are as human beings and who we are in community together,” said Brennan Barnard, M.C.C.’s college admissions program manager. The project’s research was so on point that they moved up the publication of their latest report, “Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in the College Admissions Process,” so it was released just after the college admissions scandal was made public.
The report makes the case that an intense focus on academic achievement has replaced serious concern for ethical character in many high schools and families, especially in middle- and upper-income communities. This narrow focus has resulted in parents neglecting the development of their children’s critical cognitive, social and ethical capacities that are “at the heart of both doing good and doing well in college and beyond.”
M.C.C. is working with college admission offices, high school educators and families on three main initiatives: reducing achievement pressure, encouraging ethical engagement and leveling the playing field of college admissions. Mr. Barnard says they have already seen concrete changes to the application process being made at schools like M.I.T. and Bowdoin College to alleviate some of the admissions stress. A number of elite schools have also adopted a more “holistic admissions” process that goes beyond empirical scores and tries to take into account the whole person and how they will contribute to campus life.
Changes to longstanding policies might help assuage some of the problems, but college admissions has become a deeply complex cultural phenomenon that will not be easily dismantled. The fruits of our obsession are all around us in the form of stress and excessive pressure that block students’ abilities to grow in terms of empathy and true engagement. It has also contributed to “a growing mental health crisis on many college campuses with levels of anxiety and depression at record highs,” said Mr. Barnard. “I would argue that admission to any one school or any tier of schools is not worth jeopardizing a young person’s emotional or physical well-being.”
Now, if we could just get American parents to agree.
Correction: April 8, 2019
This article was updated to clarify that Making Caring Common cited the work of other researchers on how parents and children perceive the importance of moral formation. They did not conduct the research.