TO BORROW FROM the movie Casablanca, we are all “shocked, shocked” at the college admissions scandal recently uncovered by the FBI. We are seemingly united in condemning the extremes that these wealthy—and sometimes famous—parents went to, as they sought college admission for their children. We’re talking fraudulent inclusion on sports teams, submitting fake standardized test scores and outright bribery.
But the idea of parents gaming the system for their child’s benefit is nothing new to those of us in high school education. Over the past several years, the “helicopter parents”—those hovering and monitoring their child’s every step—have given way to “steamroller parents,” who actively intervene to make sure the road to success is smoothly paved and even guaranteed for their scion (while bolstering their own reputation as successful parents).
I’ve seen a wide range of liberties taken in college applications over the years, some egregious, some minor offenses that we now just shrug at and say, “It’s part of the system.” Parents have been securing untimed and alternate testing for their children when it isn’t needed, giving them an advantage over kids who take exams under standard conditions. Parents encourage their children to lie and apply for college entrance based on a major that increases their chances of admission, and then later switch. And, of course, people will condemn “affirmative action” admissions programs, demanding that they be “merit based.” Meanwhile, they ignore the fact that the most common non-merit entrance qualification is a child who wisely chose to be born into a family that had alumni and thus is a “legacy.”
As a parent, I understand the desire to give your children every advantage, including help getting into the best possible college. But as an economics teacher and as someone who has watched what this gamification does to young people, I caution parents that they aren’t doing a complete cost/benefit analysis in going to such lengths—and the result is often poor, ill-informed decisions.
The benefits aren’t worth it. Many people are enamored with going to “the right college.” But that just doesn’t matter as much as ability. Make a list of the people you admire based on achievement—and then list which college they went to. In many cases, you won’t know and, for the rest, the list is likely varied.
Even attending a well-known school often has less impact than you might imagine. In many fields, such as business or law, having local connections from going to an in-state school proves more valuable than having an Ivy League name on the diploma. Quality education is about a teacher igniting the fire within a student. Sometimes, that’s easier to do in a small classroom in a small school, rather than in a large, impersonal lecture hall in a stately building.
The costs are too great. Let’s be clear: When parents have their child fake his or her interests, activities, abilities or game the system in some other way, that child doesn’t get into college. Instead, the fake persona does. That student now has to either assume that persona—giving up his or her true self and knowing all advancement is built on a lie—or else have the lie come crashing down later.
And, believe me, children get the message that they, as they truly are, are not good enough. They play along because they are powerless. But I have seen them be frustrated, cry and get eaten up by the realization that, when it counts, their parents insist that “success” requires them to not be true to themselves, despite what they have been told by teachers, school counselors and even their parents. It is the essential, summative lesson on choosing between core values and getting ahead.
There’s also the opportunity cost of having your child face rejection, realize the world doesn’t end and then find a “Plan B.” In a world where people lament the lack of grit in our young and their inability to figure out a “work-around,” perhaps the greatest lesson of the college experience is bypassed by parents who wants to make it easy “just this once.”
So where do we draw the line? That’s for every parent to decide. Certainly, parents should have a vision of what success looks like for their children, and even encourage and nudge their children toward it. But just like wise investing requires us to be flexible in our goals and the path to those goals, we should be flexible and broadminded in conceiving of our children’s “success” and the path that leads to it.
And that’s the objective, isn’t it? Ultimately, it isn’t the parents’ path. Instead, it’s our children’s, so we should let them own it—along with something more valuable than success: happiness in knowing they achieved what they did by being themselves.
Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. His previous articles were Five Mistakes, Spoonful of Advice and Under the Influence. Jim’s three-book series on teaching behavioral economics and media literacy, Media, Marketing, and Me, is being published in 2019. Jim lives in Granada, Spain, with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they write a blog on retirement, finance and living abroad at YourThirdLife.com.