For local parents, high school students and college counselors, news this week of a multimillion-dollar college admissions bribery scandal that involved both Palo Alto area parents and hundr of thousands of dollars was shocking — but not wholly unexpected, they said.
Despite efforts by Palo Alto Unified and other school districts and organizations to encourage a healthier approach to the college–admissions process, many parents‘ desires for the best for their children has devolved into unhealthy fear, according to parents, college counselors and experts.
“I think there’s a lot of anxiety around this that clearly affects not just what parents are investing in but students at school. It’s harder to focus on how do we do things at school that are valuable in terms of education when we have this other system out there waiting for the outputs of this.
Parents said they, like their children, feel a social pressure linked to college admissions. It’s not news that parents, particularly well-resourced ones, turn to private tutors, test-prep services, volunteerism and other opportunities to give their children a leg up in the ever-competitive college process.
Dauber suggested that many parents are motivated by legitimate fears of downward mobility — that it is becoming increasingly hard for younger generations to move up economically in the way their parents did.
That pressure drove Julie Lythcott-Haims — a Palo Alto parent, author and former Stanford University dean of freshmen — to sell both her home in San Carlos and her mother‘s home on the East Coast to move to Palo Alto for the public school system.
I had a very narrow definition in my mind,” she said.
It wasn’t until her son’s high school workload started taking a toll on his well-being that Lythcott-Haims started to “widen my blinders and see there are plenty of schools and most of them don’t demand a perfect, flawless, enriched-up-the-hill childhood.
“I think the vast majority of parents in our community always have the best interest of their students in mind and would never fathom doing anything like what has been reported,” said Mai Lien Nguyen, a college adviser at Menlo-Atherton High School. “There are times we do run up against the misguided belief that ‘successful’ lives can only be had through these colleges, or the ill-conceived desire for status markers or bragging rights; none of these is healthy or positive.
“We counsel students and parents to find balance and fulfillment in high school, to define success for themselves and not by the name of a school, and to be open to the full range of possible college pathways,” she said.
Data shows college choice does not predict success later in life — “It is what you do in college, not where you go, that matters,” Paul Franz, a research associate for Stanford school-reform group Challenge Success, wrote in a reaction piece to the admissions scandal.
Raftrey, who often points his clients to the Colleges That Change Lives website, which promotes lesser-known schools and a “philosophy of a student-centered college search,” said getting families interested in those non-elite schools is still a “hard sell.”
“Even though the data is there, people just don’t believe it,” he said.
For some, like Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” the federal bribery case is an egregious example of overparenting — at the expense of the children involved.
“This is what’s insidious about overparenting.
. ‘You’re not capable of succeeding, so I have to help you every step of the way,'” she said.
“That’s incredibly damaging to a young mind.”
Lythcott-Haims said the onus is on colleges and universities to rethink a broken system. There are tangible steps they could take, she said: making SAT and ACT scores optional (which some colleges have already done), asking applicants directly whether they received any help on their essays and declining to participate in the U.
“I think the powers that be, the leaders in college admissions, need to sit down and figure out how to construct a system that isn’t gameable and simultaneously to reinject a focus on ethics into the conversation about college admissions,” Lythcott-Haims said. “While they may not have created the problem, they’re best positioned to solve it.
Michelle Higgins, the parent of a Palo Alto High School junior, said that on the same day the news of the admissions scam broke, a large audience filled Paly’s Performing Arts Center to hear from the author of “The Self-Driven Child: The science and sense of giving your kids more control over their lives.
“We can try — and I think a lot of us do try — to fight back against that.”
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