BY MARY ELLEN CHRISTY
When T.S. Eliot described April as the cruelest month in his epic poem “The Waste Land,” he was expressing a topsy-turvy and melancholy view of the month that finally brings to the Northern Hemisphere a ray of hope following the long hard winter. Elliot was writing in 1922, a time before the existence of the all-powerful Internal Revenue Service and tax season or the creation of bureaucratic academia that causes great anxiety in the minds and hearts of college applicants and their parents as they await the receipt of college admissions decisions, both looming over the month of April.
The national spotlight is now beamed directly on the admissions scandal dubbed by the press as “Varsity Blues.” Even Saturday Night Live had a hilarious skit about the dilemma that some very famous, quite affluent, but not too smart parents have gotten themselves into by engaging in some old-fashioned cheating and bribery.
What saddens me is that although there is plenty of blame to go around, the only ones being blamed and shamed are the parents. That there is an entire “cottage industry” of academic coaches, tutors, resume enhancers, or educational psychologists willing to certify a “normal” child as learning disadvantaged so they can have additional time to complete the SAT and ACT tests that play such a significant role in college acceptances is no surprise to me or any of my colleagues who have spent more than forty years working in the field of education. This, of course, erases any leveling of the playing field for those who have been struggling all their lives with a genuine learning disadvantage.
On a whole different level, there are the real “fixers,” who for a significant fee will act as an intermediary between your child and larcenous athletic coaches. Two things that I find particularly shocking are the prevalence of this among what have always been regarded as the most selective academic institutions in the world and the number of years they’ve gotten away with it. I find the willingness of parents to place their child in the path of danger by passing them off as experts in a sport that could be downright dangerous particularly shocking.
It is one thing to pass your child off as being expert at rowing crew, after all, anyone can sit in a shell and hold an oar. Of course they won’t have the stamina to produce when they actually join the team. What is tragic is that they will have taken the seat of some worthy young person who has trained for years and needs the financial assistance so often given to athletes. But representing your child as an expert pole-vaulter by digitizing his face on the body of someone else who is engaged in the sport is nothing short of lunacy. Pole-vaulting not only requires a high degree of skill, it is also very dangerous even if you know what you are doing.
Obviously the coach already knows the deficiency of the student’s ability. He or she was only too happy to accept a five- or even six-figure gift to guarantee admission. After all, it is a simple fee-for-services agreement, and no one ever wants to kill the proverbial golden goose. In the cases of the coaches who have been caught in their deceptions, they were dismissed from their positions but what consequences have come to the Universities themselves? It stretches credulity that admissions departments were unaware of these “transactions.”
This begs the question: How did we get into this mess in the first place?
One answer is that over the last forty years, universities, much like hospitals, have undergone a radical transformation. Hospitals that used to be public service institutions and universities that used to be ivory towers of knowledge have both become big business with all the accompanying ills.
Another and perhaps more influential error is the widely held belief that the only path to success is a four-year degree. This is simply not true. The cost of college has also grown exponentially. Costs have escalated way beyond that of health care, food, or housing. Then there is the enormous problem of student debt. Many students would be better served entering a program that granted a credential for a highly skilled and lucrative career or spending their first two years in a junior college and then transferring to a more selective (and expensive) program. There are thousands of job vacancies in skilled areas and thousands of people looking for individuals who have these skills. This imbalance has been created because for far too long we have looked down on vocational education. Anyone who owns a pre-WWII property with leaded windows knows the difficulty of finding someone with the skill to repair them.
Although there are more than 5,300 accredited institutions of higher learning in the United States, the race to enter the narrow band of prestigious institutions often begins as early as Pre-K. It is not uncommon for parents to enroll in more than one early childhood program at a time in order to hedge their bets for entering a prestigious or selective enrollment elementary school. Well-intentioned but nervous parents attempt to make a strategic plan for mapping out their child’s future. Strategic plans are necessary when starting a business but have little practical application to raising children. Parents so often feel overwhelmed by the sheer responsibility of being a parent, but it can be quite a wonderful adventure if you can learn to take it one step and a time and accept the fact that children, like plants and animals, are going to follow a path of growth and development that is largely one step at a time. Mistakes, for all of us, are more instructive than easy solutions.
Children, like all creatures, need love, guidance, nurture, and support. They also need to be allowed to develop their own competencies. Madeline Levine, author of numerous books, including Teach Your Children Well, wisely advises parents never do for their children what they can do for themselves. Nor should parents do things for children that they can almost do for themselves—nothing builds self-confidence quite like the knowledge of one’s own competency. (This would most certainly include writing your child’s college essay.) But do be a good listener: offer advice when it is asked for and be to the point and supportive. Remember that this is their process and not yours.
The greatest responsibility any parent has is to protect their children. Your protection should extend to their privacy. This is particularly true during the college admissions process when everyone is a buzz with who applied where, who got in where, and who did not. It is astounding to me the way information flies around the community. All of this contributes to increased anxiety. I know one very smart and loving family who, whenever they were asked where their daughter wanted to go to school, where she had applied, and, of course, where she got in, they oh so politely replied that that was her business and that they had decided not to discuss it. To my way of thinking, an excellent answer.