When You Want to Scream About the College Admission Cheating Scandal

Have you been following the story about the College Admission Cheating Scandal? It makes me frustrated and angry on a dozen levels. Here are a few initial thoughts that have roared in my head over the last 24 hours:

– We suspect this kind of thing goes on, but here it is in all it’s ugly glory and it’s even grosser and more widespread than I imagined.

– The idea that rich people feel this need to hoard privilege. They have plenty of privilege already! Why would they cheat in order to get more?

– That even though only certain people are getting called out for this right now, it’s easy to bet there are hundreds? thousands? of families who have done the same thing, but just haven’t been caught. Perhaps they are feeling very nervous at the moment? At the same time it’s a reminder that rich people can do pretty much whatever they want and there are rarely if ever consequences. (Is it time to eat the rich?)

– The fact that the children of these celebrities and wealthy families were going to be fine no matter what college they went to. And that the kids don’t even seem to get a say in any of this. What if they don’t want to go to a fancy college? What if they know they won’t be able to keep up?

– The reality that no matter how hard your kid is working right now, there are going to be colleges they don’t make it into. And those same colleges will accept kids that didn’t do a stitch of work in high school, but have parents who bought them a spot.

– Felicity Huffman was released today on a $250,000 signature bond (meaning she paid nothing, and just promised to return to court). Meanwhile, a 16 year old boy who couldn’t hear the judge at his arraignment is being held on $300,000 bail. We reward the rich, and punish the poor. I feel like we have to keep shouting: It’s not a crime to be poor! It’s not a moral failing to be poor!

– I read the college admissions bribery scandal money was routed through a fraudulent 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation. Which means wealthy parents got an IRS tax write-off because they said they were donating to a charity for “educational and self-enrichment programs to disadvantaged youth.” It’s feels like cheating on top of cheating. 

– If you need a moment of humor, from the NYT: Collegiate fraud should begin long before high school. A solid bribery plan greases the wheels throughout your child’s development.

– I sigh when it occurs to me that there are a whole lot of parents right now who may not have known they can buy their kids a spot in a certain college. And now they’re wondering if they should do it.

– That the scandal brings up all sorts of other “legal” ways rich white people buy their way through life.

– And hasn’t it been well documented that these schools sit on billions in endowment money? So why do they insist on scrounging for $100,000 donations here and there?

Is the whole story stressing you out? Are you worried about your own child’s education? Wondering if you should take a second job, so that you can afford private school tuition? Depressed after reading your public school’s rating on Great Schools? Already stressed about how your 2 year old is going to get into the “right” pre-school or elementary school? Experiencing near-panic-attacks over college applications? Feeling like America is doing education all wrong no matter what kind of school it is (home school, private, public, charter, immersion…)?

You’re not alone.

Nothing seems to push the buttons of parents across the land quite like the topic of schools and education. And no surprise. This is important stuff. We know education changes lives and opens doors. We know stories of troubled kids who’ve had their life turned around by a great teacher. We know that extracurricular programs offered by a school can put a child on a successful career path they never even knew existed. We know some schools are better than others when it concerns bullies/special needs programs/allergies/sports/healthy lunches/harmful cliques/computer programming/foreign languages/whatever your main concern is.

We all want our kids to get the very best education possible.

I’m in the trenches too. I’ve got two kids in college, one in high school, two in middle school, and one in 3rd grade. And Ben Blair has two Masters and a PhD from Columbia in Philosophy & Education. Which I only mention to demonstrate that yes, like you, we care very much about our children’s education.

If you’ve been reading here for awhile, you know our kids have attended public schools in New York, Colorado, France, and now Oakland. Our oldest son is in his second year of community college, preparing to transfer to an architecture program at one of the UCs. Our oldest daughter is in her second year at Berkeley, preparing to declare a major in Media Studies and a minor in Creative Writing.

We know the ropes. So please let me reassure you: You’re doing a great job and it’s all going to work out.

One of the key things we’ve learned is: If/when you hear schools are bad, it often simply means they have bad test scores. And why are the test scores bad? Well, it’s not because the kids are dumb or the teachers aren’t good. It typcially just means there are students attending who don’t speak English well yet, so of course they’re not going to test well yet. My kids, who enjoy school and are great students, have been the kids who don’t speak the language yet. They’ve been the ones dragging down the test scores. And I can assure you, it doesn’t mean the school is actually bad.

We’ve also learned: No matter where they live, parents love their kids. When you hear about “bad schools,” picture the kids who attend. And then picture their parents. Remind yourself those parents love their kids as much as you love yours, and want what’s best for them every bit as much as you do. Feeling jealous of a fancy school? You may also need to remind yourself that rich people don’t love their kids any more than poor people do.

We’ve also tried other options. Our first year in Oakland, one of our kids went to a private school where she could continue her French studies. And last year, two of our kids tried a charter school (Oakland School of the Arts). We had great experiences at both of those schools, but concluded we much prefer the offerings at public schools. There are several reasons we definitely prefer public schools, and one reason is this: At both the charter and private school, much more time and money was expected of families than at the public schools. And if a family can manage to give that much time and money to a school, the time and money will go much further and have a positive affect for more students, at a public school than they will at a private one.

Our recommendation: Assume your public school will be fine. And if you try it, and it’s not the right fit, then you’ll look at other options. But don’t waste your worry on a school you haven’t even tried. Free public schools are vital and valuable. Functioning and healthy public schools are necessary for a functioning and healthy country. There’s no getting around it. If you want your kids to live in an awesome country, then your best bet is to make sure every kid in your community (not just your kid!) gets an awesome education. And the simplest way to do that? Support your public schools.

Over the years, we’ve had some truly excellent discussions about education here on Design Mom, all with brilliant comments from readers, and I’m going to highlight of few of the best ones. They’re especially good for anyone looking for reassurance.

Feeling paralyzed about moving to a new city because you’re priced out of the neighborhood with “good” schools? Here’s a post on how to not stress out about choosing a school.

Overwhelmed by the college application process? Here’s a video discussing what to expect. And here’s a podcast about de-stressing the process.

Feeling like your kid isn’t on a traditional high school -> university track? There are other great options. Read this.

Worried about your neighborhood public school? Here’s a post about our public high school in Oakland — rated a 2 out of 10 on the Great Schools website. Related, here’s a post about our public elementary school.

Too much homework at your school? Or not enough? Here’s a discussion of how we handle homework. And here’s a post about what happened when our elementary school instituted a no-homework policy.

Curious about schools in other countries? After a few months of school in the French countryside, this is what we observed. After a year+, these were our thoughts.

I hope these links are helpful to you. And now, I’d love to hear from you. What is on your mind lately as far as education goes? Are you thinking about curriculum? Discipline? Diversity and equality? Perhaps you’re worried about school start times for kids?

What are your thoughts on the college admission cheating scandal? And if you’ve read something about education lately that you found reassuring, please share the link in the comments.

P.S. — What if you attended a fancy school in England?

78 thoughts on “When You Want to Scream About the College Admission Cheating Scandal”

  1. Thank you so much for posting about public school ratings and how they can be misleading. The data that can be collected and quantified for sites like GreatSchools are rarely factors that make a school a good learning environment and give good schools bad names. I’ve long wanted a site like GreatSchools that provides actual insight to the type of learning that goes on within a school.

  2. One thing to add to an already thought-provoking list, LD (learning disabled) students!

    If you don’t have one, it’s probably not on your radar (it was never on mine!), but 1 in 10 students are estimated to face learning challenges, and as the parent of one, it complicates ALL of these issues and more.

    Schools, particularly as kids get older (HS/College) are not all well adapted at working with ‘different’ learners, and with everything from entrance exams (ISEE, SSAT, HSPT, ACT, SAT) to application essays, the difficulties increase!

    I’d like to highlight their struggles – and create greater sensitivity in the parent community – these kids are not ‘slow’ or ‘dumb’ – their brains are literally wired in a way that makes conventional teaching/learning extremely difficult, while also being some of the most creative and forward thinking people in the world!

    1. I’m right there in the trenches with you Yvonne! Keep up the fight. Each day is a battle for these kids. And don’t get me started on IEP’s. Man it’s an uphill battle.

      1. We are too! We hear a lot about the special treatment ld students get and feel a bit of a backlash. It’s difficult to read that accommodations were used to help these kids cheat on test scores. Helping others to understand learning disabilities is so important.

        1. Right there, too. My daughter’s in high school and we often get push back when trying to ensure she gets the accommodations on her IEP (now 504 plan). The sentiment is that it’s not fair to the other students. Sigh. I worry this scandal will just confirm these biases.

      2. I commend you for bringing up this point. But it’s not a matter of “smart” or “dumb.” My baby suffered a brain injury at birth that will likely have cognitive ramifications throughout her life. Whether she turns out to be creative and forward-thinking or not, she deserves a quality education to allow her to maximize her potential. Disabled kids do not have to specially earn their right to be properly educated any more than any other child. They don’t have to have hidden redeeming traits to make them worthy. Same goes for English-language learners, kids from “bad homes,” foster kids, homeless kids, or any other label we can stick on that we associate with failure to succeed in school.

  3. My first grader just started at public school a week ago, and it’s been a hard transition. Every time I start to panic (“Is this just about struggling with big changes or is this a bad fit? Is he making friends? Is he going to hate school forever?”) I go back and read your “Why We Don’t Stress Out About Choosing a School” post. It’s really helping me keep things somewhat in perspective, so thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts.

  4. I noticed on your insta-story that Oscar and Betty are going to a new school and since you posted this today I thought it would be ok to ask what’s happening with your own kids?! :)

  5. I think about your post on not stressing about choosing a school literally every day. We live in Oklahoma where our school budgets are in free fall, teachers are leaving in droves, and The Guardian just published a piece on our “failed state.” Yikes. I also think about moving every day. But for now, my four year old is in public school prek with fantastic teachers. He’s thriving in a diverse environment and learning how to get along with all kinds of people. When I get scared about whether or not us staying in Oklahoma City is a threat to his future I just have to think about your post. I truly appreciate the space you allow to not stress and the encouragement to redirect that energy.

  6. As a former educator, the daughter of an educator, and the wife of an educator (oh, and I volunteer at our local high school to run the after school drama club), I cannot adequately stress how much I love your attitude about public schools. So many issues stem from; 1-the horrible way in which money is disbursed to schools, and 2-politicians making laws about a field in which they are absolutely unqualified.
    That being said, so many things can be mitigated by the involvement and advocacy of good parents. I know that can be challenging for many families, usually because of employment, but finding a way to support your school and teaching your child to support your school can make a big difference. When good families flee from poorly rated schools, all they do is put everyone at a greater disadvantage. When good families stay and fight for the school, they gain so much more than they put it. There are gains for other students, you child learns to fight for things that are important, and your advocacy brings a light to injustices in the system.

      1. My impression is that by “good,” she means “privileged.” Maybe not the best choice of words, but I second her sentiment. As a teacher in a public high school, a school of choice opened up down the street and drew many of our most privileged kids away. Is there a significant difference in teacher ability or course offerings? Not at all. But the idea of getting into a more elite school drew away many of our most privileged students/families and I would argue that it was to the detriment of our more comprehensive four year high school.

        1. I hate to label anyone “bad” but I completely agree with your sentiment. I volunteer at a school which requires 30 hours of volunteer time from each family per year. The families keeping our extracurricular activities and fundraisers afloat are absolutely the “good” families. It has nothing to do with their economic background or social status-it’s all about the contribution of talent and time.

          1. But contributing talent and time requires the family to have talent and time to spare. My kids’ school has a majority population of poor Latino kids whose parents don’t drive. Those parents aren’t showing up to help run the Field Day or to be Class Mom, but that doesn’t mean they are bad or don’t care. It does have everything to do with their economic background and social status. You can’t hop in a car you don’t own, drive over with a license you don’t have, and put yourself into a public school where you fear exposing your own or your family’s immigration status violations. The small cohort of wealthy white stay-at-home PTA moms do wonderful things to support the school, but it’s not fair or realistic to expect every family to contribute that way (or at all).

        2. I don’t think being illegal/undocumented should get you off the hook. I am aware of some parents being illegal and still being committed volunteers at my son’s elementary school. Granted, if you are illegal there are different issues/challenges these families have to deal with, but the effort needs to be made. The quality of our kids’ schools is directly related to parent involvement.

          Also, not driving is not an indicator someone is illegal. I’m Latina and my mom immigrated legally to the U.S. and never learned to drive but that’s another story…

          1. Of course driving or not doesn’t correlate perfectly to legal status. And it’s great that some undocumented parents still feel comfortable volunteering at their kids’ schools and have the time and means to do so. But let’s not pretend that poverty and legal status issues don’t impact a parent’s ability and willingness to volunteer at a school. Most parents just don’t have the bandwidth these days to take care of their families and their jobs, and throw in extra unpaid work for their kids’ schools.

    1. Different Summer

      I think by “good,” she means parents that give a damn about their kids education. Sadly, some parents don’t seem to parent.

      1. Some people love to throw around the insult that people don’t know how to parent or don’t deserve to have kids. Please, show me the perfect people who meet that elusive, impossible standard of being stable, financially secure, immune to unpredictable future hardship, and temperamentally suited to being parents. Don’t forget that parents, however inept, are for the most part trying their best, and even if they’re failing, the children they raise are our future society. If we write off those kids, it’s to everyone’s detriment.

  7. Masha Gessen wrote a great piece in the New Yorker, putting the recent admissions scandal into the broader context of education in the US. I highly recommend (though it is maddening).

    The issue underlying all of this, as Gessen and Gabrielle point out, is the vast and gaping inequality in American society.

    I am no expert on higher education and think behavior of the parents, consultants, and coaches implicated in this most recent case is terrible on many levels.

    Then there are the “legal” cases like Jared Kushner’s parents giving Harvard millions just when he happened to be applying to the college. And he was accepted despite a ho-hum high school record. Is that fair? no. And yet, more than 70% of Harvard undergrads receive some form of financial aid, 50% pay an average of $12K a year, and 20% pay nothing. Did the Kushner millions cover the tuition of some of those other students? I don’t know but probably. If so is it worth taking a subpar rich candidate if it allows you to cover the costs of one or more really bright applicants from poor families? If I were an admissions officer, I might think so. Even if I also thought, as I do, that the socio-economic playing field is entirely rigged to benefit the rich and punish the poor and that universities shouldn’t have to depend on Kushner-like families to provide affordable education.

    1. “Did the Kushner millions cover the tuition of some of those other students?”

      That’s a good question. As I understand it a school like Harvard has such a vast endowment that they don’t need to charge tuition at all.

      1. Harvard does have a vast endowment. But most of that money is given with strings attached — it must be used for such and such purpose. (Even when that purpose is no longer relevant or useful, Harvard is legally barred from using the money for something else.) At least that’s how I understand it. Also, “Harvard” is actually a bunch of entities — there are the wealthy schools like Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. And the newish Engineering School whose name I’ve forgotten. Then there are much “poorer” schools like the Harvard School of Education, the Divinity School and — more relevant to this conversation — Harvard College, which educates undergraduates. I am really not an expert on this, and don’t know if the Kushner’s money subsidized other students. I guess I was just pondering the question — is it worth taking a mediocre rich student if the family gift provides scholarships to poor students. And Harvard is just the example that I have a bit more familiarity with (my husband teaches there).

        Obviously more generally it’s obscene that parents are resorting to bribes rather than teaching their children that had work is more important than being an “influencer.”

    2. I don’t know anything about Harvard’s endowment/financial aid award finances other than it’s generous but I know for a fact that when it comes to private K-12 schools, Jessie is absolutely right that full tuition paying parents/donors effectively pay for kids on financial aid, and this is a consideration in admissions. I can’t imagine it’s not in higher ed as well.

  8. These children were already raised in extreme privilege. The parents could have easily paid for tutors, education consultants, etc…To think of the kids who do participate in crew, and their parents, supporting a rigorous schedule that crew requires for years, who were skipped over for a photoshop poser. When I was in college, I was also balancing rent, two or more jobs, insurance, all of it. Most semesters I could only afford one or two classes, if any. Bar tending, temp jobs, waiting tables, etc. It is time to realize that it is not affirmative action, and the people who *may* benefit from that, (understanding that their achievements are minimized to the color of their skin, not their actual abilities. One must be twice as good, and be “grateful” for the opportunity) that the system is stacked for. Where a lot of these “kids” verbally acknowledged they did not even want or need to go to school. The whole point of “grandfathering” is a racist system to keep those with different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds out of these institutions. I think of all of the kids who don’t have support at home, but still find a way to succeed, with none of the resources. But I guess when you don’t work for that Mercedes, or you don’t know the feeling of accomplishment, (something you cannot buy, something that you must work for), lying to receive an elite education doesn’t seem shady. One girl just wanted to keep making youtube videos. Why did her parents think that she needed that education to continue to vlog from yachts and castles? I think of the crew student who actually wanted to be a civil engineer. Who contributes more to our society? So now, we have a highly educated vlogger, and a undertrained, underpaid brilliant bar tender.

    1. “Why did her parents think that she needed that education to continue to vlog from yachts and castles? I think of the crew student who actually wanted to be a civil engineer. Who contributes more to our society? So now, we have a highly educated vlogger, and a undertrained, underpaid brilliant bar tender.”

      So well put.

      1. Actually, I think it’s more correct to say “now we have an overpaid vlogger whose brand was boosted by getting into USC (but probably didn’t take advantage of the education otherwise)…” I sincerely doubt she will “highly educated” at college–according to the NY Times, she was in Fiji the second day of school. I am so unbelievably disgusted by this–cheating to get into a prestigious school as a means to promote a social media brand (not to become educated), while already being in a family with so much money she never needs to work. If her parents were so concerned about her getting a top-notch education, why didn’t they make sure she was on campus and attending classes?

  9. Gabby, thank you so much for posting your thoughts. It’s helped me to get a handle on mine, too. It’s is an outrage, though I’m not really surprised it’s been happening.

    We have a junior and and a sophomore in a well-rated public high school. (We didn’t choose to live here for that reason, we just decided to stay in my hometown.) We are considered middle class here. Many families here have much more than we do, and their kids have enjoyed more advantages, so to speak.

    My son is a bright but average student and will take his SAT’s in a month. He loves learning, but hasn’t really loved school, and doesn’t have clear educational or career goals at the moment. My husband and I have been uncertain as to what is best. For now, we’re thinking work and community college after graduation makes the most sense for him and for us, financially.

    We both have our Bachelor’s degrees, but wonder how much it even matters anymore. Adding to that the extreme college acceptance competition, and it’s tempting to just throw in the towel and rebel against higher education. I’ve kind of lost my belief in it, and this latest news is very defeating. The whole thing feels rigged and I feel weary.

    Thank you for the links, too. I’ll be reading them all and trying to find some guidance and reassurance again. Knowledge is power, right? Right? 💕

  10. In regards to community colleges, I’m a big fan! Not only did it save me from having student loan debt, it exposed me to a much more varied school culture. I went to classes with kids who easily could’ve gotten into more prestigious 4-year schools but couldn’t afford it and with kids who could only get into a 2-year school. I also went to school with many returning adult students and let me tell you, they always blew us out of the water when it came to their work ethic. They were often working full-time and caring for their own families, but they still made us look like complete slackers. It was a humbling experience I still carry with me today. I would love for my daughters to go to college, but I won’t force them. You have to want it. By the time I graduated from community college, I truly valued my education and had the drive to finish my bachelor’s degree.

    1. We have been preparing our kids for this same scenario – community college for the first 2 years.

      I wish I had been given this advice before incurring student loan debt & other related debt to go 8 hours away to a private college – and that was in addition to scholarship money. Although, I will credit my time there with making me NOT SURPRISED AT ALL about this scandal.

      1. This is our plan too. There is no reason to take on so much student debt. And given some of the craziness going on at the elite private schools (see Sarah Lawrence, for example), I would rather see my kids going to school with real people with a diversity of opinion.

    2. I’m an adjunct instructor who teaches at a community college as well as a baby ivy. I’ve been doing this for nearly 15 years and know a lot of the other instructors as we circuit together. Trust, we are teaching your kids at the community college the same course as we are at the baby ivy. Same textbook, same lectures, same assignments and exams. The baby ivy obviously has a lot more resources going for it, but the actual instruction?

      You get a pretty big bang for your buck at the community college!

      Regardless of the school, there are fewer and fewer full time professors and most courses are taught by adjuncts. (A whole other can of worms, on many wormy levels.)

  11. I have too much to say about this, so I’ll just say that I agree with all of your points. It is unfair, unjust, and systemic.

    I’m a university professor at a (recently) R2-ranked public university (which means I’m not at a fancy or elite school, and that I teach a lot more than my colleagues at R1 schools). My children will have two options for college: to attend the university where I teach, where they will get free tuition as my dependents; or to get a full tuition remission scholarship at another institution. I feel guilty sometimes that we can’t afford to give our children options. But that guilt is tempered by my knowledge that college is really what you make of it. I have had some of the most incredible, driven, gifted students come through my classes. My colleagues are similarly committed. I believe you can get as good of an education at Marshall as you can at Harvard. You just don’t get the clout that comes with the name on your diploma.

    1. Yes! I’ve been telling my daughter (now a HS senior) that what she gets out of her education is up to her. You can go to Harvard and get a mediocre education; you can go to a community college and get a stellar education. It’s what you put into it. Does the name on your resume have the same clout as Harvard, no, but plenty of very successful people in a range of fields went to schools that were nothing special. it’s what they chose to do with their education and opportunities that made the difference.

      For those feeling stressed about college, read Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. So good and very reassuring for those inclined to worry about *where* their kid is going to college.

      I find the scandal itself depressingly expected. Rich people find any number of ways to game the system. I’m almost surprised this group was stupid enough to do something illegal. They could have used other legal (although unsavory and unfair) ways to buy a spot at a prestigious school.

      As with so many issues in this country – housing, health insurance – I think we do a terrible job of leveling playing fields and providing opportunities for all.

    2. I agree with this. My husband and I both worked out way through our Bachelor degrees at a state school. We both worked our tails off and paid our own way through. And we both graduated Magna Cum Laude. I went on to a fantastic and stable career and helped put him through a Master’s Degree (at the same state school) and medical school at a top 10 med school. During med school we noticed, that at least with his class, the students who really excelled were the kids who put themselves through, had stronger backgrounds of needing to work hard for what they got, and typically went to “less fancy” schools. Those people made their education fantastic with their attitudes and general work ethic. They were there because it was THEIR passion. The kids who generally were pushed into med school by parents (meaning their parents wanted it more than them) and who came from a place of higher priviledge seemed to have more stress, more difficulties, and a higher rate of failure. Just getting a fancy name on your degree doesn’t mean you’re going to do well. And the pride and knowledge that you could get yourself through on your own merits, money (including jobs and sadly student loans), and make it ON YOUR OWN is, in my opinion, an invaluable gift that I’ve had. Whenever life gets scary or stressful I think, well we both got ourselves through that, we can handle whatever else life throws at us. And now we have the means to give our kids “priviledged” educations and we are hard core supporters of public schools and community colleges and state universities.

  12. I remember you posting about how to interpret stats about public schools a few years ago, and I have to say that it made such a big and helpful difference for some friends of mine who where moving at the time and trying to figure out where to send their kids. It’s such an important perspective!! I think people so easily overlook the *meaning* of statistics.

    I’ve really appreciated your posts lately about extreme wealth. I’m super bothered by the situation. But I’m wondering if anyone has any advice related to wealth and relationships—familial, friendship, or romantic. This feels awkward to comment about, but I ask because I’ve recently started dating someone I really quite like but who has more money than I really understand the point of. Given how bad extreme wealth seems to be, is this grounds for not pursuing a relationship with someone? (Is it like dating someone with a bad character or who is involved in criminal behavior?) I also have extended family who have “rich people” things…like a boat, or a Steinway. How should we be friends with such people given these concerns about wealth?

    I realize these questions might sound dumb, but I mean them sincerely, and I wonder if this community (sensitive to both the concerns about wealth and unchecked privilege, but also the value of living relationships) would have some helpful insight.

  13. I wasn’t at all surprised by this scandal. I’m happy higher education is being recognized as a business. Too many people view college as a golden ticket to a Bright Future. PUH-lease. Hard-working students from any background will do fine at community college, a state school, a no-name college or an Ivy League. Let the rich bribe their way in and pay full fees. Their kids will make it or they won’t. Olivia Jade does not need a BA degree to sell makeup on youtube. To all the parents out there stressing about education and college: don’t. Just love your kids, read to them, have interesting conversations, support their interests as well as you’re able, and let them fly. They will absolutely figure out the life that is theirs vs. the one you had fantasized.

    1. “To all the parents out there stressing about education and college: don’t. Just love your kids, read to them, have interesting conversations, support their interests as well as you’re able, and let them fly. They will absolutely figure out the life that is theirs vs. the one you had fantasized.”

      I love this sentiment. I also wish I could take your advice. The truth is that I do stress about this for my kids. Will try to keep this in mind.

  14. I love this post, and thank you so much for ending on an optimistic note! I feel like the cheating scandal and overall mania about curating the PERFECT educational opportunities for kids now is reflexive of the scarcity mentality that is pervasive in America. The Shadow of the “American Dream.”

  15. I work in higher ed. Schools won’t admit it. But if you are a full tuition payer, your kid is getting in. That’s just the way it is. They say need blind but come on. We all know how it works.

    Money talks everywhere people. It’s just sad it has happened where ethics is of most importance.

    1. Sad truth. Thanks for veryfying that. My friend experienced that first hand. Her daughter and her friends applied to an Ivy League school (Rice, I think). The only one who got in was the one who did not need finacial aid. Even though she was not the most qualified.

      1. I suspect that is why my students (I teach internationally) can get into almost in school they apply to in the states. They have to pay even more as an international student. However, the tides are changing because my students don’t want to go to the U.S. anymore. They are looking at schools in Australia and Europe. They think it is a dangerous time for an immigrant to be in the US now.

        1. Yup. Int’l students on an F-1 Visa are required to submit bank statements to show they can pay a full year tuition prior to getting the visa.

  16. Just sayin…. and I’m not in this particular financial league… but not all rich people bribe And cheat college admission systems.

    1. Hah! Did you just #notallrichpeople this post?

      I mean, I didn’t put a qualifier on it. I just said “rich people.” You are reading it as “all rich people,” but you could just as easily read it as “some rich people.”

      If they don’t participate in this kind of corruption, then I’m not talking about them, right?

  17. Yes to all of this, Gabby! My first thoughts when I read about the cheating scandal were sadness for two sets of kids: the ones whose parents are setting them up for failure by buying their way through life and sending them to schools where they clearly aren’t up to performing academically; and (even more so) all the kids who worked their butts off through high school and got rejected from their top choice schools because undeserving families bought those spots.

  18. I worry that the news about “wealthy” people buying their kids’ way into college will make the privileged middle class folks like myself presume they couldn’t possibly be contributing to the problem because they don’t have $100k to give to anything right now, let alone a fake education fund for underprivileged kids. But that doesn’t mean people like me aren’t at risk of opportunity hoarding. I’m Caucasian, I went to college (and then graduate school), and my annual household income is just over $100k. I’m married to my child’s other parent (another privilege), and if we had the inclination we could navigate our way out of our default local public school and into a private school or charter program we think is better. We aren’t wealthy, we don’t have second homes or off-shore bank accounts or a personal fleet of Teslas, but we are the epitome of people who will be just fine. My son is only 3 but I look forward to sending him to the public elementary down the street in a few years and investing whatever time and money we can towards making that school better for every kid that attends, not just mine.

      1. And of course it depends on what you mean by “the rich”. If you don’t worry about paying your credit card bill this month, then congrats. You’re rich.

  19. Lindsey Stewart

    Where my anger comes from, is that the mediocre students whose parents cheat and lie their way in, will be the future decision makers of our country, from education to energy usage and health care. And in a rigged system where nepotism and privilege rules, their concern mainly seems to be, how to hoard that privilege. I have no desire to be wealthy. I do have a desire for opportunity to be equally accessible along the entire economic spectrum. Posting a link about this that says it better…

  20. Let’s not forget Abigail Fishers and Allan Bakkes who sue colleges all the time because they think a student of color “stole” their spot through race-based affirmative action policies!

  21. Thank you for your post! I am a chicago public school teacher and I just wanted to affirm your post! I work at a school that serves low income families and many dual language learners. These children deserve excellent schools and opportunities too! I heard an NPR story last year about the importance of placing children in public schools and fighting for them to be excellent for everyone. When people of privledge choose to not send their children to the public schools they bring their resources and advocacy else where. Ultimately I believe that my children are not more important than any other child. Unfortunate, that is not a very American view, and I fear that poor children are suffering as a result.

  22. Lindsey Stewart

    Oops, just coming back to this. This is from Jaimie Leigh on FB, I can tag you on the post, if you want….

    I’m gathering from my feed that this whole college admissions scandal is really shocking to a lot of people.

    Well, sit down, babies, because I’m about to deal you a hard blow.

    This is nothing.

    I think a lot of people seriously have no idea how thoroughly the system is rigged. I spent several years as a for-hire writer who couldn’t afford to turn work away. This means I accepted a lot of jobs I feel icky about now, but it also means that I’ve seen firsthand how this all shakes out.

    (Important note: There is not a single person on my friends list who I am referring to with any of what I’m about to write. Also, I stopped taking the type of work I’m going to describe years ago. So if I’ve ever helped you with written material, or if I’m currently helping you: this does not apply to you.)

    See, getting little Asshole McGloatyFace III into Harvard is just the first domino en route to prestige and pedigree. That’s why it’s so important; the first domino starts the chain. The richest of rich parents get him there by donating a library collection or buying a building. The middling rich, like those in today’s story, cheat (and don’t for a single second think the people indicted today are the only ones, because they are not, not, not).

    The lowly rich hire people like me to write their kids’ essays and letters, pull together their resumes, and figure out how to make years of abject mediocrity sound good. And they don’t only hire people like me. They also hire special tutors and test prep gurus to teach their kids to hack the tests. They pull strings to get their kids special accommodations they don’t need, so they have more time to get all the math problems done on the SAT. They get interview coaches who teach their kids what to say when they go for their appointment. They lean on connections to get Harvard and Yale take a “second look” at their C+ student with a 980 SAT score. These kids get a complete team, and the face Asshole McGloatyFace presents to the Ivy isn’t his own; it’s a composite of all the best expertise his parents’ money could buy.

    When Asshole McGloatyFace is in school, his parents hire people like me again. Want to know how many papers I’ve written for undergraduate students? Graduate students? I couldn’t even tell you. It’s a higher number than I can remember offhand. Need a magic paper to save your grade in the class you’re failing? Need to save your half-assed thesis? I’ve done it all. I’m a better-than-average writer and I made my clients look good.

    All this work goes into making sure Asshole McGloatyFace graduates from an Ivy, because graduating from an Ivy—combined with the connections of Mom and/or Dad—means he gets internships at the best companies and firms. It means he gets interviews, even if his GPA is sub-3.0. It means he gets the best jobs when he graduates. He’s still an idiot, but now he’s an idiot earning high-five or low-six figures.

    This is when the next dominos start to fall. Asshole McGloatyFace’s company is going to get him an executive coach. Because he has the right name and the right degree and the right presentation, so he’s tagged as executive material, and they’re going to start grooming him now so he doesn’t make them look stupid later. The coach is going to teach him how to present himself, what photos to put in his office, what suits to wear and how to accessorize. If Asshole is a man, the coach is going to teach him how to open large meetings with a sweet, humanizing story about his family, especially his kids. If Asshole is a woman, the coach is going to teach her how to be brusque with a smile and never talk about her family under any circumstances, especially not her kids.

    Along with the executive coach, Asshole is also going to be assigned a mentor, someone accomplished and probably equally prestigious. The role of the mentor is to help Asshole McGloatyFace to meet the right people, form the right connections. The mentor is going to take Asshole McGloatyFace to events and make sure he knows all the power players in their city.

    The coach, mentor, and senior-ups are going to guide Asshole McGloatyFace to volunteer and charitable giving opportunities. Not just any volunteering and charitable giving, but those that are well-aligned to Asshole’s decided-upon Personal Brand (TM). Asshole is going to learn how to give lots of money and make it known, without appearing to brag about it. Asshole is also going to get seated on the best non-profit boards in his city. Some of these are competitive. Want to know how I know that? Because they require an essay, resume, and bio. And guess who writes those.

    So now Asshole is rubbing elbows with even more movers and shakers, and is establishing a high-quality Personal Brand (TM). At this point, Asshole has been promoted a couple times and is earning low-mid six figures.

    Buckle in, because here’s where lots of dominos start to fall.

    At this point, Asshole’s bio features an impressive school, an impressive job at an impressive company, impressive volunteer positions, impressive philanthropy, impressive Personal Brand (TM). This is enough to earn Asshole consideration for a whole host of things most average people have absolutely no awareness of. He’s going to apply for and be named one of his city’s “40 Under 40” and get a spread in a local, glossy magazine*. He’s going to apply for and get a position in his city’s “Up and Coming Young Leaders” program, and be interviewed on TV. He’s going to apply for and win a spot in his city’s “Wealthy People Pretending To Do Good But Really Just Hanging Out With Other Wealthy People” initiative, and get newspaper coverage.

    I’ll give you one guess who writes those applications.

    (*Note: I’m not shitting on “40 Under 40.” Some folks make it on there for genuine charitable good deed, which is awesome.)

    By now Asshole’s been promoted again. He’s in his 40s, maybe 50s, and is earning high-six figures, and it’s time to go for the jackpot.

    Asshole has now built all the right credentials to apply for a position on a for-profit board. He probably won’t get the first one, and maybe not the second, but he’ll get the third or fourth. How quickly he gets picked up will have a lot to do with how well he’s nurtured his connections and how fondly people remember his parents, who are now elderly or dead. He’s going to link up with a Fortune 500, be named to their board, and pull in a seven-figure paycheck for turning up once per quarter to listen to updates from the CEO and make management decisions.

    He’ll need a resume, bio, and compelling personal letter to make this happen. Check, check, check.

    Asshole is now making millions of dollars per year, earning millions more on a board, and, as a loving parent, is guiding his own children through the exact same process.

    This is how it works. This is why The Right University is so important. It’s not about the degree. It’s about this entire life path, this entire system of manipulation and prestige, to make sure the children of the uber wealthy become the next generation of the uber wealthy, that they get exclusive opportunities and exclusive consideration.

    Every single step along this journey, there are other people clawing for the same opportunities but not getting them. Those people didn’t come from the right parents, or graduate from the right schools. Their applications weren’t as good, because they wrote them themselves, and most people (sorry, y’all, but it’s true) do not write nearly as well as they think they do. Their bios weren’t as perfect, because they didn’t have executive coaches and mentors to help them establish a fine-tuned personal brand. Their ideas weren’t as interesting, because they were working with their own stupid ideas and not the ideas of professional idea-havers.

    THE WHOLE SYSTEM IS RIGGED, YOU GUYS. It is rigged. Maybe you went from lower class to middle class, or lower middle class to upper middle class, and you feel like FUCKIN A I LOVE AMERICA AND BALD EAGLES AND MERITOCRACY, but it’s all an illusion. Even if you financially make your way into the nouveau riche layer of the upper class, you still won’t be one of the chosen unless you manage to hit some kind of insanely unlikely lottery (Barack and Michelle Obama come to mind), but you’re honestly more likely to get bit by a radioactive spider and start shooting web-shit from your wrists. The upper class is a closed system, thanks but no thanks, no vacancies, don’t let the door hit ya.

    I’ve taken jobs from 40-something year old men who handed the telephone to their daddies to talk about how to craft the right impression in their adult child’s “personal” letter. I’ve worked with executive coaches to hash out what jokes to write in order to best illustrate the “good humor” part of someone’s Personal Brand (TM) in a “personal” essay. THAT is how this works.

    There’s no such thing as meritocracy.

    The end.

    1. Very well written. Wow. I would like to hire you as a writer on the spot! And thank you for the insight, I suspected it, but you phrase it amazingly well. Thank you.

    2. Yup. All of it true. I am finding it really difficult to get upset about this most recent scandal, because, really? It is nothing new. Legacy donations at Ivy League schools are simply the norm, and have been or generations, and there is absolutely zero difference between this “new” scheme (sooooo not new) and the fact that, for instance, Jared Kushner’s convicted felon father donated $2.5 million to Harvard at right about the same time ol’ Jared was applying to Harvard.

      Also? It will never change. Felicity Huffman may never get hired for another acting job, but that will only be due to the fact that a movie/television producer won’t want the stain of her name to keep viewers away and thus decrease their viewership revenue, not because she is somehow being punished by moral outrage. The Kushners of the world will continue to buy their way into Harvard and the White House. No one will remember any of this exaggerated shock in about, oh, a year’s time.

  23. Hate to add to the misery that is our education system. When my husband went back to school to get his masters he was amazed at the amount of cheating he encountered. Not just among the white folks.
    The one that topped it all was a professor from India who would funnel students from India to the country, got them into grad school, and essentially turned them into indentured servants. They worked for him and did everything he said. We were friends with a student from India who got in on her own merit, and who’s father had gone to prison to fight to get rid of the cast system. She was horrified seeing it play out here in the US.

  24. Thank you so much for doing all this good work and all the great links. I have two boys in private school and it takes up most of my time making sure they are on top of their shit.

  25. I grew up in a heavily Asian community in Southern California where it was common to attend SAT bootcamp. I wanted to increase my scores, but knew my parents wouldn’t pay (my older sister had done really well on her SATs without it). I only managed to convince them to send me to a two day prep, which didn’t help. This was back in 2000/2001. My parents had gone to local colleges, but not competitive ones, so they didn’t know how to advise either of us on how to be more competitive (we just knew to join clubs, secure leadership positions, take APs, and maintain high GPAs). We really didn’t know what we were competing against (the legacies, the children who’d had parents who were involved, or had more money to dedicate to the effort).

    Re: public schools- the only kind I’ve ever attended- when I was living in Oakland, my boss who was also living there was super stressed about where her kids would go. She wound up selling her home and renting in Piedmont. I had commented early on that the schools would really benefit if all parents just sent them to their local schools. I’m sure that didn’t endear me to her. But I do recall someone commenting that the Bay Area is where liberalism and reality collide.

  26. Your words seriously bring tears to my eyes (in a good way). Thank you SO MUCH for advocating for public achools and for caring about everybody’s kids (they’re all God’s kids, after all!). We live in an area that is the butt of all the jokes in Utah (West Valley) and I really love our community. I love that I can keep my Spanish sharp, and teach my kids Spanish, because we’re surrounded by amazing Hispanic neighbors and friends. I love that my son’s first experiences with school were with a black teacher and a Tongan teacher—so to him it’s normal to see women of color in positions of authority. I love living a block away from Salt Lake Valley’s biggest mosque. What I don’t love is the rest of Utah’s disdain for our community. Even though we’re poor, the parents here absolutely love their kids. Thank you for your post.

  27. This was a good read. It definitely vocalized my thoughts on the scandal. I teach overseas right now and I moved internationally because I was frustrated with the education system. I worked in WV, which has now had two strikes in the last two years. I was spending so much time in the state capital that it was exhausting.

    I have two little kids and I put them into private school because the public school has mold issues. I really was more concerned about the buildings than the kids and teachers they would be around. I loved the private school they went to but that added up and cost more than my mortgage each month! So we decided to teach overseas again (my husband and I had done it before we had kids).

    I feel like I am much more respected as an educator now. I also find that my own kids are growing in ways that I was not expecting. They are in first and second grade right now. They have learned so much more about music and art. The classes are top notch at our private international school. They also stay after school for drum, piano, chess, and art classes. They are learning Chinese and Thai in school as well as English. It isn’t a perfect school overseas either. We are in Thailand and there are 100s of international schools in Bangkok. I don’t know that the public schools are great, but I am so glad we made this move for our kids right now.

    I have a feeling we will go back one day to WV (we still own our home there) but we will send out kids to a Co-op that is really thriving right now. I worry more about myself and going back into the school system as a teacher. I hope I can do it again because I really love being a teacher right now and I feel like I am doing a good job because I am so much happier.

  28. Thanks for this interesting read. I’m from Holland, where the school system is different, but parents come across the same hard decisions where it comes to choosing a school for their kids. In Holland there appears to be a growing gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ educated kids (literally the words are high and low, this starts from middle school). Schools should’t be an instrument that divides societies, no matter what.

  29. To even the playing field in the college application process the first step that should be implemented is that the SAT’s and the ACT’s should be abolished. Those tests are a money making scam/industry that favor wealthy applicants who can afford tutors and test prepping. Next, elite colleges should actively recruit in poor public school districts by GOING to the schools and interviewing candidates and supporting candidates from start to finish,freshman year of high school to senior year. The entire college application process is outdated, corrupt and enmeshed in historical policies that are discriminatory.

  30. This situation also reflects the parent’s total disregard of their children’s own needs, desires, personalities, etc. It is all about their own needs — “my daughter is at Yale”, and nothing about understanding their children and being responsive to them. Take a look at Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath to get a full perspective on understanding what is truly important in choosing a college (among other things.)

  31. I was very not shocked to read about this, but still really upset. The whole system is rigged. I went to public school k-12. I killed myself doing well in school, participating in extracurriculars, even playing sports (not my forte), pretty much trying 110% at everything. As a brown child of immigrants, doing my best to prove I belonged in my advanced courses and honor societies. You don’t know how many times I heard “She speaks so well” as code for she speaks for a brown girl. I aced everything. All. the. time. My parents would sometimes get concerned I worked too hard. I remember my high school counselor being so excited as I told her where I was applying. She was sure I would get in to so many schools and receive scholarships. Also, since my parents did not go to college or understand the process, I did everything on my own, bringing in to the counselor to double check paperwork correct (at the time, you typed your paperwork!). I was very lucky to be in a “specialized” NYC public school that had great resources – also a school I worked hard to get into. Much to my disappointment (and frankly, shock), I did not get in to most of the schools I applied to. My classmates who hardly cared about school or lifted a finger for anything had acceptances rolling in. At first I didn’t understand. Then I started hearing it. “Well my mom went / my grandfather made a call / etc.” My heart was broken. However I ended up in a state school with an experience I really loved and my parents were so proud of me. As undergrad began to come to a close, I realized most of the positions in the field I wanted to go into required higher education. For this degree, I told myself I would get into a private school. And I did, I attended a graduate school with name recognition in my field and was the first in my family with a master’s degree. For two years, I went to school full time, worked in a bakery, and completed internships (and moved back home to save money). I started my first “real” job my last semester. I worked hard and am actually one of very few women of color in my position. However, I have often come to regret that decision. The burden of student loans is immense. It was a huge burden on myself, but now married with kids, it’s a huge burden on my family. It is a weight I carry every single day. It dictates decisions both my husband I make. I look around at all of my colleagues who live without this burden with envy. That higher education “requirement” did not apply to them. My field is very white and very privileged. If you aren’t white, you still come from a family of wealth. I am neither. Am I proud of myself? Yes. But I read these stories while I am busting my tushie under the burden of still paying for a degree after over a decade and my blood boils.

    1. I am sorry. My young family is bucking under the weight of student debt too, and really hurts to see people who walked the same road and came out debt free because of family money (especially when those same people toot their own horn about how hard they worked—yes, they worked hard but not as hard as someone who worked to put themselves through).

  32. I have never doubted the lengths to which people so concerned with (parental) image would go to pad the brag sheet. If I thought for a moment that this mess was really about giving children a chance to achieve, I might understand. I seriously doubt setting kids up to fail among peers far more dedicated and intelligent helps anyone. As parents, we must model what we hope to see in our kids. Period. If image is everything, IMAGE IS EVERYTHING for them, too. I am a proud mom of 1 kid in grad school, 1 in community college, and 1 about to graduate from high school. You know the best gift we have given them? The tools and (limited financial) resources to complete their higher education without debt. Hurray for state schools, community colleges, and honest conversations.

  33. It’s interesting to me that most people are feeling bad for the children and view the parents as the ones pushing their kids toward these schools. When I read the stories, I imagine a scenario of kids who really want to go to these schools and their wealthy parents who have, until now, been able to give their children every single thing they have ever wished for. Faced with the possibility of having a school tell their child “no” and having a disappointed child, they will go to any length to ensure their child gets what they want.

  34. I highly recommend checking out Integrated Schools. It looks at some of these same issues you bring up, but through a lens of integration, and specifically what it means for white and/or privileged parents to support public schools. They recently started a great podcast, and their website is full of resources as well: https://integratedschools.org/

  35. Hello,
    I was interested in Ben’s college program he was putting together. I think it was called Teachr?? Anyway, whatever came of that?

  36. Words of wisdom Gabrielle! As a mom just a few years ahead of you I can see how this one topic took up WAY too much of my emotional energy over the years. We homeschooled for 20 (!!!) years, because the voices closest to us said our kids would be harmed by the school system. I, gratefully, no longer believe that. There were some positives to homeschooling, and I don’t regret those, but fear should never be a motivator of our decisions. I feel for parents who are making these decisions now as it is getting more complicated, and therefore easier to fear a mistake. I’m currently walking through this with my daughter who has 5 kids, two recently adopted form S Africa, and has considered private, charter, home and public school options. I’ve just stood by cheering her on as she attempts to do what’s best for her kids, without fear. And the consensus is…public school. YAY!!!
    As an “older” mom, I wish I could tell the young mom’s one thing… don’t worry!! Just do the next thing, the thing in front of you. We did not have any money to bribe, manipulate, or even to create numerous advantages of experience for our kids, and we didn’t go into debt. I know one family that has over 100K of debt because of things they felt they “had” to do for their kids. We did as much as we could within our limits of time and money, and sanity!!!, and there wasn’t much of any of the above. But I have watched each of my seven children graduate with honors from their universities, colleges, and high schools (our younger kids attended private and charter high schools), because they knew it was up to them, not us, to succeed. The ones going through or done with college have had some form of scholarship for academics or sports, and the graduates are doing wonderful things with their degrees. I wish I could boast about them here because I’d love to, but I’ll spare you.
    But Im not saying this to boast about us, I’m saying this to say we “did it all wrong”, but somehow it’s all turning out alright! I had someone tell me once I was harming my children due to their lack of opportunities. So far, I see no evidence of that. I couldn’t be more proud of them, no matter what school they went to, or what opportunities they missed in life, because I take no credit, I know it wasn’t some super power we possessed, we’ve made plenty of mistakes. A large part of my story is my faith, and my belief that God is watching over my kids more than I am, and I am so grateful for the trust. It is helping me learn to worry less, although I wish I could say I don’t worry at all. But what I am happiest about it that my kids are just wonderful people, good citizens, and grateful for what they have. They are happy, healthy, kind humans. So, I think we’re doing pretty good in life.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top