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Photoshopped athletic profiles, manufactured test scores, Hollywood celebrities, titans of industry, Stanford, Yale, UCLA, and a charismatic fixer by the name of Rick Singer—these are just a few of the key plot points and characters in a very real college admissions cheating scandal dominating the headlines.
It’s ugly and disturbing on many levels, and rightly so—much of the media coverage has focused on the potentially negative fallout of these revelations for a broad range of stakeholders in higher education, including students with learning differences.
But that isn’t the whole picture.
With eyes that have read thousands of college admissions essays, and seven years of experience in the trenches of college admissions consulting, I see at least three potentially positive outcomes worth noting as we try to unpack the implications of this mess for our own children and students:
1. As a Stanford alumna, and seasoned admissions consultant, I was not surprised by this story and neither were any of the students and professionals with whom I work.
Because there are so many other “small” ways applicants blatantly lie on their applications, from hiring services to write their essays, to winning science competitions with experiments their parents did for them, to spending four years cultivating a profile for a niche major with the explicit intention of switching major once they’re accepted.
My colleagues and I neither condone nor support any of these approaches, but each of us has had to confront these behaviors dozens of times with families seeking to game the system in these less egregious, though equally unethical ways.
Thanks to this recent scandal, I will have even more leverage to discourage such behavior. I hope that colleges will too, by continuing to take a deep look at the incentives their admissions criteria generate. The obsession with academic and testing perfection, and the resume padding that many genuinely hardworking students engage in are driven by the kinds of students they consistently see admitted.
The good news is: colleges have actually been moving in the right direction for some time.
For example, many high-profile schools have been moving away from standardized testing as a key metric; schools like Harvard have released important recommendations about how to make empathy and concern for others central to their evaluation of applicants, and how to level the playing field.
However, this change has been slow to filter through the system. This scandal may just be the wake-up call higher education needs to accelerate the progress toward greater equity, transparency, access, and accountability.
2. One thing I don’t want to see happen is for this scandal to exacerbate the fear, anxiety, and mistrust of the system many parents and students already feel.
Instead, the takeaway should be this: college is not the endgame.
Both high school and college are just chapters in a life that is hopefully driven by a greater sense of purpose and meaning, which cannot be reduced to the brand and reputation of one’s alma mater.
I do this for a living, and even I don’t believe where you go to college determines your success or happiness. I do believe young adults need mentors to help them clarify their values, develop a vision for their lives, and consider how their innate gifts can be of service in the world. In a culture impoverished of initiation rituals, loading up the car and driving up to the dorm is about as close as we come to initiating our young people into adulthood, but it isn’t the only option.
Above all, initiation is something one earns; it cannot be bought.
As parents, let’s take this moment to dig deep ourselves and ask what we really mean when we say we just want our children to be “happy.” As a trained psychologist, I can tell you from the research that happy people have strong relationships with friends and family, have a deep sense of purpose, and consistently practice gratitude. If you want your kids to be happy, make that your focus, not where they go to school.
3. I am optimistic that this is just another necessary, painful, and positive moment in the cultural zeitgeist of our time. A reassuring feature of the news coverage I’ve been listening to is that the conversation has expanded from focusing on the particular, scintillating, if absurd, details of the case to questions of privilege, access, and affordability in higher education.
This is the era of transparency and unmasking the rigged nature of so many of our institutions, despite the attempts of wealthy elite to white-knuckle their hold on a decaying power structure.
One important takeaway from all of this and the reason I stayed up late getting these words just right is that framing matters.
This is exactly the kind of story that appeals to our inner cynic. The game is rigged. Our kids are screwed. If not Rick Singer, somebody else will find a new “side door” to the ivory tower and perpetuate the elitism and inequity that plague our society.
But as I’m learning every day with my 20-month-old, how we, the trusted adults, react to a given situation speaks volumes to the impressionable young minds around us. Parents, educators, and counselors alike have an enormous opportunity to guide the discourse around this scandal in a way that empowers young people and reinforces integrity, authenticity, vulnerability, and grit.
Alongside Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, the names that should be making headlines right now are Brené Brown, Carol Dweck, and Angela Duckworth, among other pioneers who through their research are slowly but surely helping our educational institutions correct course.
But institutional change is slow; the real groundswell has to come from raising a generation of kids who know that their worth cannot be measured by a test and their character matters more than any framed certificate hanging on the wall.
We can do this. Onward!