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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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