Operation Varsity Blues has captured the nation’s imagination for the past few weeks. The headlines conjure images of parents who have lost faith in their children’s ability to stand on their own two feet—images of colleges as “Pay to Play” institutions, auctioning off admissions to the highest bidders.
Watching and reading the news coverage might lead us to question the authenticity of the entire college admissions process, but while this scandal has rightly exposed loopholes in a few broken systems, it is important to remember that, despite the wide spread footage, these are isolated incidences. For the most part colleges and universities maintain standards that are immune to the influences of fame and fortune.
Although it is true that the acceptance rates at the nation’s top tier colleges are well under 10 percent, it is also true that there are thousands of colleges around the country that provide a quality education in an environment and for a cost that meets a student’s intellectual and financial needs. Getting to your top choice college is no guarantee for life-long success and neither is attending your “safety school” a mark of lifelong failure. According to an essay published by College Success (Stanford University based Research and Advocacy Group), students who study hard at college are the ones who learn the most, regardless of whether they attend an Ivy League school or a local community college. Similarly, a 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index found no correlation between college selectivity and future job satisfaction or well-being.
If that is the case and it sounds like common sense, then why do we find ourselves asking the question: What Are Colleges Looking For?
How many times have you heard this question being asked by parents and students alike in college fairs/ tours, etc.? To me, this question is at the heart of what is wrong with the college admissions process and the start of where things go wrong. It is as if once we get a laundry/check list of things that the college(s) are looking for, we can program our kids around this set of criteria and thus ensure that they get accepted into their dream colleges. It is easy to forget that being accepted into the ‘dream college’ is not an end in itself.
If our goal is to help our students achieve success in college and in life, we need to start asking different questions when touring campuses. Will the coursework challenge our students? Do the class sizes accommodate our students’ learning needs? Are there recreational and extracurricular outlets that match their interests? What resources are available to help them overcome the obstacles they will inevitably face?
But before we can ask these questions, we need to have honest conversations with our kids. We need to find out who they are and what they really want from a college experience—not what they think they should want. The answers will help our kids make the right decisions—the decisions that will put them in a position to succeed.
Operation Varsity Blues exposes as many institutional fault lines as parental fault lines. As parents, we can reflect on our own journeys through college and into our early professional lives. We can remember the things that had the most impact, the lessons we learned that stay with us years later. If we are honest, we will admit that our career graphs have not been straight lines to the top—that the twists and turns along the way required us to redefine and reimagine our paths.
Chances are, the college environments and the people we interacted with influenced us as much as the classes we attended. Chances are that over the course of our careers, we have had to question ourselves, what is important to us, what interests us, and what we really want to do. If all that is true, shouldn’t we view our kids’ journeys through college with the same lens? Shouldn’t we view the admissions process as a way to discover which college is best for our children and not how we can make our children fit a college?