A Scandal Fit for a Win-at-All-Costs Society

On Tuesday, court documents alleging a major college-bribery scheme described some outlandish behavior on the part of wealthy parents looking to give their children an edge in the admissions process. Allegedly, the parents were open to falsifying learning disabilities, athletic accomplishments, and grades on their children’s behalf, as well as paying millions of dollars in bribes.

These strategies are, of course, extreme, and the government argues that they crossed a legal line. But they are manifestations of a common desperation, one shared by many law-abiding peers of these wealthy parents, to get their children into top-tier schools. The sometimes outrageous strategies alleged in court documents are an indication of the extreme pressure that many affluent parents feel to ensure that their kids go to a “good” school, which will lead to a “good” career, which will lead to, they hope, a good life.In a way, these parents have correctly assessed the high stakes of attending a highly prestigious college. “When you apply for a job and you went to Bucknell, versus an applicant where everything else is the same and the kid went to Yale, my bet is on the kid from Yale every time out of 10,” says Brian Taylor, the managing director of Ivy Coach, an admissions consultancy in New York City with clients from around the world.

In response to this dynamic, many parents want to do all they can to get their kids into a tiny set of exclusive institutions. “There’s little question that highly selective schools provide an earnings premium over the entire life course,” says Mitchell Stevens, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and the author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites.

Stevens also brought up the phenomenon that researchers refer to as assortative mating, in which married couples tend to match up based not just on having a college degree, but also on the perceived prestige of those degrees. “If you’re worried about the people with whom your son or daughter is going to spend the rest of their lives with,” he says, “then you worry about where they’re going to go to school.”

Stevens says that the impulse to get one’s child into a top-ranked college can be just as much about parents’ wishes as their kids’. “These mothers and fathers live in a world in which the mark of good parenting is substantially tied to where one’s children are admitted to college and university,” he says. “There are bragging rights, and fear of shaming if one’s sons or daughters are not in the running for at least moderately elite colleges and universities.”

Indeed, admissions consultants I spoke to said that the parents they work with aren’t only concerned with their children’s long-term career prospects. “The parents want to brag to other parents at the grocery store when they’re standing in line,” Taylor says. “’My kid got into Stanford.’ ’My kid got into Harvard.’ Similarly, another admissions consultant I talked to, Maria Laskaris of the Massachusetts-based firm Top Tier Admissions, cited the possible motivation of “wanting that bumper sticker on the back of their car.”

Laskaris, a former dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College, says that many parents seem to hold the belief that if their children don’t enroll at their dream school, it will ruin their life. “And I think we all can realistically step back from that and say that the very best students make the most of whatever opportunities are afforded to them,” she said. In fact, a 2002 study suggested that those who were admitted to both a highly selective private school and a less selective public school, but chose the public school, ended up just as financially well-off in the long run as those who picked the private one. (Interestingly, students from the poorest households seemed to benefit from attending selective private colleges, while everyone else—including well-off students such as those at the center of this scandal—did fine pretty much regardless of where they went.)

“There are plenty of examples of young people who go to all kinds of different schools who lead very successful and fulfilling lives, regardless of the name on their diploma,” says Laskaris. That may be true, but it’s harder to convey on a bumper sticker.


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