The College Chase Is Pushing Parents Over The Line

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This isn’t going to be enough, is it.


It has become one of the recurring themes in the news–the lengths that parents will go to in order to get their child into college.

The big story was the college admissions scandal that uncovered the rich and famous bribing and lying to get their children into college. The scandal touched a national nerve, as witnessed that just three days ago, Vanity Fair published yet another story about the scandal. The unveiling of the story has not so much awakened national shock as it has elicited a national recognition. Not so much “I can’t believe anyone would do such a thing” as “Well, sure. Let me tell you about these parents I know…”

The idea that college may not be the best destination for everyone is not new. The Chronicle of Higher Education was asking “Are too many students going to college” a decade ago. There has been a renewed push for career and technical education. But here is still steady drumbeat for students to go to college, even as college has become extraordinarily expensive. The days in which a summer minimum wage job could pay for college are long, long gone. That means that parents are concerned both about college admissions and scholarships.

Teachers have been watching the effects of this pressure for decades. High school, and even elementary teachers, can tell stories. The parents who desperately lobby for the grades that will secure all important GPAs and class ranks. The parents who view school sports not as a fun part of school years, but as a critical audition for scholarship dollars. The children who are pushed from an early age as if they are in some desperate race, and college is the finish line.

There are decisions that the college chase pushes on you. By the time my two oldest children were college age, their mother and I were divorced. We shared custody, but the all-important FAFSA form (the federal financial reporting form on which all financial aid is based) required us to essentially pick a custodial household. She was remarried, and she and her husband had well-paying jobs; I was a single school teacher. We made a choice based on the financial interests of our children. It was just paperwork, with no effect on the reality of our children’s lives. It was a choice we made–but it wasn’t a lie.

But when ProPublica Illinois and the Wall Street Journal broke the story of wealthy parents who were giving up custody of their children in order to get need-based college aid, I was not particularly surprised. By the same token, it’s not surprising that families have found ways to game the SAT and ACT by having their children diagnosed with a special need–the prize is extra time to take those college admission exams.

On one level, these scams are understandable; many parents are inclined to do everything possible to help their child achieve the college dream. But “everything possible” goes beyond “everything legal and ethical,” and these parents crossed a line. That leads us to several problems (not the least of which is the ethics lesson being given the child–game the system any way you can).

One problem is that, when wealthy families use a guardianship scam to get scholarship money, that money is the unavailable for families that are really struggling. When a wealthy family scams a seat at a college, that’s one fewer seat available for another student who might be more deserving.

The overall effect is to leave less wealthy families in a double bind. Not only is it easier for wealthy families to navigate the legitimate paths to college, but now it turns out that wealth also makes it easier to navigate the illegitimate paths. Money not only helps one win the game; it also helps one cheat at the game. Meanwhile, less wealthy families get boxed out of the game entirely.

Ironically, all of this feeds the pressure for the college chase. People look around and see wealthy families pulling every possible string to get into college and they absorb the message that college must be awfully valuable, a necessity to getting ahead. Imagine the message that it would send if wealthy families were going to these lengths to get their children into a good trade school.

How to solve the problem? We could cross our fingers and hope that all families will decide there are some lines they just won’t cross, no matter how badly they want to send their child to college. As former college president Michael T. Nietzel suggests, colleges can pay closer attention to the routes scammers use and guard them more carefully.

But we should also take a look at the cost of college. Much like our medical system, our college system is one of the world’s most costly; we spend more per college student than any country except Luxembourg. Where the money goes is often debated; it certainly doesn’t seem to go to teaching staff, who are almost three-quarters “contingent” or non-tenured faculty; fifty percent are adjuncts who barely make a living wage.

As a nation, we’re in danger of making higher education a luxury item available only to the wealthy (even by cheating); instead of powering economic and class mobility, college would then stifle it, further cementing people into the class they were born to. The repeated revelation that the wealthy feel the need to scam the system is a canary in the college coal mine, a symptom of a system that is breaking down.


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