Opinion: College admissions scandal sheds light on parents’ misplaced values in education

Does mother know best? “I’m listening.” Two weeks ago, I stormed into our kitchen to tell my mom the breaking news story of the day. My mother stirred the dinner she had been laboring over for the past few hours; she turned away from the stove to toss me a sad smile. “I already heard.…
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Saba Nia

March 26, 2019

Does mother know best?

“I’m listening.”

Two weeks ago, I stormed into our kitchen to tell my mom the breaking news story of the day. My mother stirred the dinner she had been laboring over for the past few hours; she turned away from the stove to toss me a sad smile.

“I already heard. I can’t believe it.”

When federal prosecutors accused a number of high profile individuals in scheming to place their children at prestigious colleges through fraud and bribery March 12, the country was rocked. Students, parents and administrators alike witnessed the lengths parents would go to to secure their children’s futures. William “Rick” Singer, the founder of the Edge College & Career Network, along with 50 individuals engaged in illegal activities — including cheating on standardized tests, lying about testing accommodations and falsifying athletic records — to gain acceptance into schools like UCLA, USC and Stanford, Yale and Georgetown universities, according to court records.

This scandal not only illustrates the value parents place in a college education, but a dangerous disconnect between parents and their children. The 33 parents implicated in the FBI’s investigation, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” demonstrated an overwhelming lack of faith in their children’s abilities to gain admittance to universities on their own merits. But more tragically, comments from the children involved have painted a portrait of parents out of touch with their children.

According to the court records, conversations between parents and conspirators suggested that some of the illegal actions were taken without the children’s knowledge or approval. Not only did these individuals taint the students’ futures with their criminal behavior, the parents’ need to control the outcomes of the college admissions process deprived these children of learning how to navigate their first adult experience: going to college.

This concentrated fixation sends a message to young adults that outcomes are more significant than the journeys that lead to them. A Making Caring Common report released earlier this month demonstrated that parents “[prioritized] their children’s care for others over their achievements.” However, a 2014 survey of students from Making Caring Common showed the opposite: middle and high schoolers across the U.S. were “far more likely to view parents as prioritizing achievement over caring.”

In their pursuit to provide the best for their children, parents have associated their children’s growth and success with tangible results: high test scores, long lists of extracurriculars and well-regarded colleges. We shouldn’t go to college, however, just to earn a nice diploma from a prestigious university to frame against our wall or so that our parents can flaunt our achievements at the next social event. We should go to college to learn and grow — not just academically, but as people.

As the 2018 Challenge Success report stresses, finding the “right fit” college is far more important than the rankings and prestige of the institution. The researchers wrote that across all financial and academic indicators, the students who benefited the most from their college experience were the ones who were the most engaged in their college communities.

Many school administrations have begun encouraging students to find their own path, often by providing resources to families that encourage students to consider “nontraditional” academic journeys. School counselors and deans have begun to emphasize the range of choices available to rising seniors and to be open to colleges or other options they may have never previously heard of or considered.

Colleges themselves like to focus on a “holistic” applications and provide resources to students so they can better understand the admission process. Representatives and tour guides maintain that universities want not just the star athlete or straight-A student; they want the individual who takes risks, makes mistakes, helps siblings with homework, visits grandparents on the weekends, volunteers at the local shelter, speaks up for those who cannot, and most importantly, listens.

But this hasn’t affected the perspective of many parents; the culture surrounding the college admissions process has remained as competitive and toxic as ever.

As a second semester senior, in a few days, I will know where I will be spending the next few years of my life. With my college admissions process about to conclude, however, I am not the only one that will be making this big decision. For the past year and a half, my entire family has joined me on my journey as I have prepared for standardizing tests, visited schools and filled out applications.

It makes sense, as such, that deciding where to go to college, or whether to a pursue a higher education at all, doesn’t feel like such an individual choice. And it shouldn’t be.

Though I can drive and vote, I am barely an adult. I don’t have the wisdom and experience of my parents. And I certainly don’t have the same resources to financially support myself through the next few years. Out of respect for my parents, who have sacrificed so much to even be in this country, I have listened to their input throughout this entire process.

And when I have gotten stressed out or dismayed, they have listened and supported me. My father, who received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering when he was my age, has described his own fast-paced academic journey as an 18 year-old college graduate to suggest that I enjoy my youth. My mother, who like my father moved to the U.S. for her college education, has detailed her own experience of coming to America and becoming a doctor to offer advice about the strength needed to prevail through new obstacles.

I am grateful for their steady presence during this stressful time, but I know not many other families can find this balance.

Inside and outside of classrooms, my peers and I have discussed our parents’ involvement in our college admissions process. I have recalled my own experience writing and submitting essays with minimal to no parent involvement (to this day, my parents have only heard me read aloud the first draft of my personal statement). Other students have unburdened the pressures their parents have placed on them for the last several months.

A few weeks into the school year, a close friend confided in me that her parents weren’t letting her go out with friends until she had rewritten her essays to their liking; she was essentially on house arrest until January.

A few months later a classmate revealed that his father was forcing him to apply to a particular college early because it was his well-ranked alma mater; any other place wouldn’t have been suitable.

A few days ago, a student called his decision to commit to a school for basketball his mother’s choice; he didn’t get to have a say.

You don’t need to look at statistics to know that this type of outlook harms a child’s well-being. Parents have to realize that in their quest to make their children happy, they may sometimes unknowingly jeopardize their happiness.

This cheating scandal, among many other things, has illustrated the pressures parents place on their children to matriculate to a “good” college.

Parents shouldn’t live vicariously through their children to fulfill their own dreams and expectations. It will take time, but with more communication and trust, it is possible that families can come together to support one another during this process.

Parents can openly articulate their personal reservations and desires to their children, but they must also be open to the wants and needs of these young adults. Establishing these concerns early on, making plans regarding standardized testing and applications and being open to suggestions from school administrators and others who have gone through the process before are all good steps to take.

In a few days I will receive my last college decisions. And regardless of the results, I know my parents will be proud of me. I know that wherever I end up, I can always count on them to indulge in our conversations and that when I speak, they’ll be listening.