The College Admission Scandal

Bribes and phony credentials versus great college planning advice

  • Parents bribing college officials to get their child admitted to college?
  • Students — knowingly or unknowingly — submitting standardized test scores taken by someone else?
  • Teens faking a learning disability in order to secure extra time on standardized tests?
  • Students (or more likely, their parents) sending a video with the student’s image replacing that of a world-class athlete in an effort to grab coaches’ attention?
  • A college counselor wheeling and dealing with parents, coaches, and university officials and dangling a promise of admission to any family that can pay?

These behaviors are abhorrent and antithetical to the growth of a student transitioning to college.

These behaviors are also very rare.

The vast majority of coaches, admission officers, and test preparation tutors are conscientious, moral, and working in a positive way to achieve fair outcomes. And the vast majority of professionals paid by families to help students and parents through this process are honest and hardworking.

I’m not speaking here of college and career counselors in schools. These folks work diligently with students, helping with college and career decisions. The events in the last week involve a private counselor, and since I am one of them I’m going to focus on that group of professionals.

We are called Independent Educational Consultants (IECs). We belong — or at least the ones you would want to work with belong — to either the Independent Educational Consultants Association (iecaonline.com) or Higher Education Consultants Association (hecaonline.com). We may be members of both organizations. We may also belong to the National Association for College Admission Counselors (nacacnet.org). And if we want to earn a credential, an increasingly popular option, we can become a Certified Educational Planner (aicep.org) after taking a board-certified examination. If we pass the CEP assessment and are granted a CEP credential, we are required to meet stringent recertification standards every five years. That recertification includes visiting colleges and earning continuing education hours. Significantly, if I am a member of any of these organizations, and/or if I am certified, I am required to adhere to very detailed ethical guidelines and standards of practice. In hiring an educational consultant, the vast majority of parents are seeking guidance in finding colleges that “fit” their child’s abilities and aspirations. These parents take (or should take) pains to interview consultants and check out their affiliations, backgrounds, and references.

The “counselor” involved in the recent admission scam belonged to none of these professional organizations, nor did he possess any credential. He likely didn’t take classes in the field or attend a professional training program. And it is evident that professional standards or ethical concerns had no place in his services. The parents who sought him out were never looking for an individual to help them find a great college match for their student but someone who would game the system so their child could attend the “status” school of choice.

I recently published a textbook for IECs, and throughout the book, certain themes emerge. One is that we work to find the right match between student and college. That is, we ask which are the colleges that can help this student thrive? At which colleges will she be pushed and not shoved? Where will she be happy? Where will she learn more about herself, others, and the world?

Another theme is that “fitting in” is just as important as “getting in,” if not more so. As IECs, we try to know the individual teen as a student and as a person. We discuss with both student and parents issues such as cost, size, location, and departmental strengths. Because IECs make regular campus visits and talk with students, faculty members, and admission staff, we are able to identify colleges that match the needs of individual students. By sharing that information with families and encouraging our student clients to take the lead in the process, we work to find the best college matches for every individual.

A point I emphasized in my book is that IECs make absolutely no guarantee of admission. Indeed, I would refuse to serve a family who asked me to game the admission process. My job is to help students define what they want in a college and apply to schools where they can discover and grow and thrive. I want the students I work with to fully “own” their college acceptances. They get into colleges not because of me but because they were active and engaged in their college search and took the time to identify what they — not their parents — really needed and wanted in a school.

What IECs do is open up college options for the student. We understand that there are many good choices for every student. We are familiar with a wide array of colleges with the facilities and faculties to provide a solid stepping stone to a student’s future education or career. What makes us happy is when our students find the right college for them, whether it’s a large competitive university, a small private school, or a local community college.

I’m proud of my colleagues and what we do. I would never have entered this field had I felt I was being paid for influence. I’m proud to be involved in a profession whose annual conferences are filled with sessions on understanding nonverbal learning disabilities, defining critical considerations for STEM students, helping students and parents understand merit and need-based aid, and developing tools to help students of color thrive in college. I’m proud of the growing educational opportunities available to IECs.

I’m proud of the fact that we are seeing students in our offices at all income levels. I’m proud that we are finding great choices for students graduating from well-known high schools and from lesser known schools. I’m proud that almost every IEC accepts pro bono clients. I’m proud of the books published by IECs on topics such as learning disabilities and college transfer. I’m proud of the fact that almost all families can find an affordable consultant.

One of the most pernicious aspects of the recent admission scandal is that it reinforces the beliefs that only certain name schools are worth attending, that the wealthy can buy admission, and that the only way into a “dream” school is by the back door, with mommy and daddy pulling strings and pulling out their wallets.

We need to put the kibosh on college admission myths.

Colleges that are more selective are not necessarily more scholarly. Colleges that cost more are not inherently better. Colleges in the East are no better or no worse than colleges in the West. A high ranking in US News & World Report does not make a college the right place for every student.

It’s true that the better-known colleges are besieged with applications and that the number admitted is low. But it is also true that most colleges admit over 60% of those who apply, and hundreds accept even more.

I often encounter the bogus notion that only the elite colleges are worth the cost. I’ve been visiting colleges every year for over 30 years. I’ve seen more and more colleges in the United States make their way into the so-called “top tier.” The idea that there are only a handful of “good colleges” and that the rest are, by default, “less-than-good” is simply wrong. (I often say that while the number of truly amazing colleges has risen in the last couple of decades, the perception of quality hasn’t changed all that much.)

Instead of just the eight Ivy League colleges and a few others, I believe that there are at least 100 colleges in the top tier, and that is likely a conservative number. At each of these schools, students are getting a superior education. They are meeting interesting kids from all over the world. They are taking advantage of study abroad programs. They are getting a well-rounded undergraduate education. And they are going on to successful graduate schools or success in the world of work.

A list of the undergraduate colleges attended by students recently admitted to Harvard Law School shows elite selective colleges but also schools such as Northern Arizona, Auburn, Holy Cross, Creighton, Howard, Moravian, SUNY College of Environmental Science, and the University of Tennessee. I find that generally it is success in college that counts more than graduation from a big name school.

Every parent wants the best for their child but the “best” varies for every student. Most parents don’t want their children to feel as if they were not good enough to get into college on their own. Most parents recognize the difference between having an Ivy decal on the back window of their vehicle versus finding an enriching and life changing collegiate experience for their son or daughter. Most parents don’t believe that their status in life, earnings, or fame entitles their children to be admitted to an elite college.

Those parents and their children who do buy into the “dream” school concept are only setting themselves up for disappointment. The real dream school is one that provides students with opportunities to grow and develop, to stretch their wings and open themselves up to new concepts, and to learn about themselves and other people and the world itself.

Steven R. Antonoff is an Independent Educational Consultant in Denver. Dr. Antonoff is an instructor in the certificate program in Independent Educational Consulting through the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of A Student of Colleges: Fundamentals of Independent Educational Consulting, intended for professionals and two popular college planning books for students and families: College Match: A Blueprint for Choosing the Best School for You (now in its 14th edition) and The College Finder: Choosing the School That’s Right for You (Fourth Edition). He was dean of admission and financial aid at the University of Denver.

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