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Admission of Guilt

Rand Spero  |  November 18, 2019

WE’RE FASCINATED by the recent college admissions scandal—and the wealthy parents and celebrities who were arrested. This drama has all the elements of a reality television show. The parents, who get starring roles as villains with no moral compass, scheme to ensure their children gain admission to sought-after colleges.

The lively plot doesn’t bother with common concerns, such as how to afford the high cost of college tuition, which continues to rise much faster than inflation. Instead, this drama highlights the sexy theme of parents using illegal means to secure a guaranteed invitation for their children to the “winners’ circle.”

Teenagers and younger adults have had an especially strong reaction to the scandal. It bothered them that, in certain cases, parents had an unspoken agenda and took action without their children’s knowledge. The sense of family entitlement sent the message that societal rules didn’t apply to them. I heard one teenager joke, “No need to study for the SATs now. I’ll have a professional test taker get a high score for me.” Another laughed, “I’ll just skip practice. Mom or Dad can photoshop me into the varsity team picture.”

Yet this scandal has a silver lining. Since this story has inter-generational interest, it’s a great topic for a family discussion. Some aspects you might delve into:

  1. How would the student feel if parents took illegal steps to guarantee his or her college admission? How important is it for parents to have confidence in their child?
  2. How do we each define success? How important is status and money?
  3. What value do we place on honesty? Does the end justify the means?

While there are no easy answers to these questions, I encouraged one couple to use the scandal to spark a discussion with their high school senior, since he had followed the story with intense interest. The son’s feeling was that parents who act behind their child’s back demonstrate a lack of confidence in their child’s ability. He added that, if the student found out, it would damage the trust between child and parents.

How to define success? The parents and their high schooler had distinct perspectives. They all agreed that it would be great if the student ended up happy with his career choice. Yet the parents’ goals for their child mirrored more traditional aspirations, such as a career in a well-regarded profession—and that would be helped by their son’s acceptance to a good college. The student, by contrast, gravitated toward careers that seemed cool to him and his peers.

The most interesting part of their discussion involved moral character. They agreed it’s far easier to measure money than good character. While the son wanted a comfortable lifestyle, he was determined to follow a principled path to reach his goals. His parents may not have been thrilled with the careers he’s currently pondering—but they were pleased their son had ethical concerns and wasn’t focused solely on his own self-interest.

Rand Spero is president of Street Smart Financial, a fee-only financial planning firm in Lexington, Massachusetts. His previous articles include Life SupportMonthly Affliction and Self-Sabotage. Rand has taught personal finance and strategic planning at the Tufts University Osher Institute, Northeastern University’s Graduate School of Management and Massachusetts General Hospital.

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Phil M
Phil M
1 year ago

I think this is a great idea – my kids are seniors in high school and they did indeed have a lot of interest in this news story. Having a discussion about success would be interesting.

Unfortunately these types of issues go far beyond the rich. The mother of one of their friends confided in me that her husband wrote their daughter’s college essay. He wrote a tear-jerker about his brother (the student’s uncle) who died young. There is no doubt in my mind this will help get her into her dream school, and she will probably have zero regrets. “Rich people aren’t happy. From the moment they’re born to the moment they die, they think they’re happy, but they ain’t happy” – The Simpsons

Rand Spero
Rand Spero
1 year ago
Reply to  Phil M

Yes, the issues extend beyond class. You provide an interesting example. Unfortunately when a parent pretends to be the student, he or she is sending out a disconcerting lesson about the value of scamming the system.

Peter Blanchette
Peter Blanchette
1 year ago

With all due respect, this scandal is much deeper than the issue of the cost of education or how parents and children should respect each other’s definition of success in life including the choice of a career. It is about how this country(how this world) has evolved into a society where a precious few of us have almost unlimited opportunities to succeed in all aspects of life and more and more of us have less and less chance to reach the level of our aspirations because the opportunities that are needed are becoming scarcer and scarcer for many of us.

Rand Spero
Rand Spero
1 year ago

You are correct that there is becoming more and more of a winner take all approach. The question remains how should parents and students handle this increased pressure,

Mik Barbasol
Mik Barbasol
1 year ago

Reminds me of our current Washington scandal with Hunter Biden …money and influence for the “ winners circle”.

David J. Kupstas
David J. Kupstas
1 year ago

Olivia Jade was the highest profile of the students affected. What’s interesting is that (i) she was already probably earning a good living as a YouTube star and (ii) the parents could have taken that half a million dollars and just given it to Olivia Jade and given her a nice start on her nest egg.

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