College admissions aren’t fair, but cheating is not the answer

Mar 21 2019

College admissions aren’t fair, but cheating is not the answer

“Well who says life is fair? Where is that written? Life isn’t always fair.”

As parents, we may often cite this lesson from one of my family’s favorite movies, “The Princess Bride.” Like the film’s grandfather character played by Peter Falk, we may point out the lack of fairness in the world when our children are most indignant at what they see as an injustice perpetrated on them. Sometimes, their sense of unfairness may be well-founded; at other times, they may be merely disappointed at not getting what they wanted.

Having worked with high school seniors for over thirty years, I have tried to warn them up front that the college selection process isn’t fair. They may be the world’s finest flautist; however, if their first choice school has a surfeit of flute players and the orchestra is graduating the top oboist, they are out of luck. Similarly, they could be a great outside hitter on the volleyball team, but if College X needs a setter, they may need to look somewhere else. None of this is the student’s fault, but if their talent set doesn’t match what the university needs at that time, they may not be admitted in spite of all their hard work. Colleges are often looking for diverse classes rather than diverse individuals. This can be a bitter pill for students to swallow, but they should go into the process with their eyes wide open.

Jacques Steinberg’s book “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of an Elite College” makes for sobering reading on this topic. Reading it after your child has enrolled could allow for better sleep than if you read it while immersed in the college search; either way, it will leave you more well-informed than before but also perhaps even more infuriated.

A lack of fairness in the college admission process has been an acknowledged fact for a long time. I can remember being shocked when a certain child was accepted to an elite school only to find out later that the student’s parents had been steady donors. Similarly, I can recall being stunned when an outstanding senior was not admitted only to find out later that her need for a large amount of financial aid may have been the stumbling block. In neither case were the students judged on their merits. Innumerable times, I have scratched my head at what seemed to be nonsensical decisions.

However, even after knowing all of this, I was still disappointed last week when federal prosecutors from the Department of Justice charged fifty people with bribery and fraud in a scheme to secure children admission to schools like Stanford, Yale, University of Texas, Georgetown, and Wake Forest. Hollywood actresses, fashion designers, and businesspeople, along with college coaches, have all been implicated in the scandal. Falsifying SAT/ACT results, pretending that applicants were high level athletes when they in fact did not even play the sport, and bribing coaches were among the means that a company in Southern California used to help children secure placement into colleges like the University of Southern California when their credentials were insufficient in comparison to other students who were competing for the same spots. The breadth and depth of the scandal were perhaps not surprising, but they were profoundly dispiriting when the cheating was so profound and so blatant.

Apparently, the students may not have known at the time that their parents were attempting to rig the system. I feel badly for these children as they learned that their parents didn’t believe in them enough to allow them to succeed, or not, on their own. The lesson that if you don’t deserve something, you should just go out and buy it is disheartening and corrosive. In addition, scandals like this force us all to question even further the integrity of the process. Is this just another sign that seemingly everything is for sale and that hard work is for chumps?

What do we tell our children? We continue to encourage them to do their very best because there really is merit and self-satisfaction in a job well-done. We explain that just because others cheat and lie doesn’t mean that they have to succumb, and that a reward gained on false pretenses in the end feels hollow, false, and can corrupt one’s soul. We explain that in accordance with Keystone’s core values, academic excellence must be accompanied by ethical growth for one to be a full human being.

In terms of the college process, we help our students understand that they will find the right school whether that’s an Ivy League institution, a small liberal arts college, a large state university, an arts school, or an engineering program. We help them see that the goal is not finding the “best college”; it’s going to the college that is best for them, and they can revel not only in their acceptance, but also in the knowledge they did it the right way. Regardless of the shortcuts others may take, our Cobras can hold their heads high and be proud not only of the things they have accomplished but also the people they are.

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