College Admissions Corruption: What Message Are We Sending to Our Kids? by Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead
Privilege. Power. Corruption. On March 12, 2019, the Justice Department “announced dozens of charges related to a massive college admissions bribery scheme, involving big names from Hollywood actresses to Wall Street and Silicon Valley executives” (Huffington Post). Parents, students and educators are, understandably, outraged.
As a parent myself, and as someone who has spent the last 18 years teaching undergraduate students, I find the actions of all involved despicable and shameful. I keep thinking about my students who worked diligently throughout high school and then screamed with delight when they received their college acceptance letters, knowing what it took to get to that celebratory moment. I think about the creative kids who spent countless hours in the theater or the studio. I think about the athletes – the ACTUAL athletes – who worked as hard on the field as off. I think about the children with ACTUAL disabilities who succeeded despite the obstacles they faced, and I think of their parents, too, who advocated for them, who prepared for IEP meetings, who took their children to countless appointments, all in an attempt to support their kids’ college dreams.
While we all have every right to be angry, we really shouldn’t be surprised. This is not a new story. Sure, the names have changed and perhaps the actions seem especially egregious, but this is not the first time the wealthy and powerful have used their privilege to buy opportunities for themselves or their children – and it won’t be the last.
Nearly every headline I’ve seen has referred to the behavior of the 50-plus parents and coaches as an “admissions scandal.” But let’s call it what it is: Bribery. Fraud. Obstruction of Justice. It’s theft, too, isn’t it? Because these parents stole a spot for their child from a deserving, hardworking student. You know what else it is? It’s sad. It’s sad that parents sent a message to their children that they’d need to lie and cheat to get into college rather than get in on their own merits. It’s sad that in “helping” their kids they communicated that they just weren’t good enough for a top-tier school, yet any other school would be beneath them. It’s sad that they sent a message to their kids that honesty, diligence and integrity are meaningless.
But what message is now being sent to the rest of our children, the ones who weren’t born with every advantage, and what do we make of it? Well, I think that’s up to interpretation and perspective. We can choose to be jaded and bitter and pass that message on to our kids, and who could blame us? Or perhaps we can use this latest example of injustice as an opportunity to have an important conversation with our children. We can talk to our kids about classism and privilege and the ways in which the system is broken, and how it was broken long before this “scandal.” We can discuss ways in which the system can be improved. We can discuss integrity, character and diligence. We can remind our kids that they are good enough no matter what school they go to, and that they’re good enough if they choose a path other than college, too.
We can also talk to our children about how our expectations and values haven’t changed, regardless of what others may choose to do, fair or unfair. I love my kids. I want them to succeed. I want to see them go to the college of their dreams, if that’s what they want. But not at any cost.
Photo: The Sterling Law School at Yale University
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