At least 50 people—most of whom are parents—have been charged in a $25 million college admission scam, the largest in United States history.
Parents who allegedly participated paid millions of dollars to ensure their children were accepted to prestigious universities like Yale, Georgetown, and Stanford. According to investigators, they accomplished this by paying people to cheat on admissions tests and bribing college coaches and administrators to falsely identify their students as athletes.
While the scheme involves wealthy people going to highly unethical and illegal lengths to get their children admitted to top schools, it’s indicative of a much larger parenting issue.
“It says that [helicopter parenting] is alive and well, and it’s more extreme than ever,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford and author of How to Raise an Adult. “The term I’m using is drone parenting. The parent is the drone, lifting up the package —the kid—and literally carrying them to the future the parent wants for them. The kid is not getting there themselves, the parent is literally landing them on the doorstep of college.”
Lythcott-Haims says parents are to blame here, but so is the college admissions and ranking processes.
“It’s pretty clear that overparenting is aimed at getting kids into the ‘right’ college,” Lythcott-Haims says.
There are many names for “overparenting” — helicopter parenting and lawn-mower parenting among the most pervasive — but they all get at the same core issue of parents doing for their kids instead of supporting their kids in doing for themselves.
Harvard Senior Lecturer Richard Weissbourd adds that this scam shows what a dismal outlook these parents must have had of their kids’ capabilities.
“The parent is basically saying, ‘we needed to do all these things for you because we didn’t have confidence that you were going to get in yourself,’” Weissbourd says.
And the impact that has on young adults? It sets them up for failure, Lythcott-Haims says.
“A child whose parent does the work for them, writes the essay, takes the test, and bribes the coach— that child will not be capable of thriving in college or the workplace,” Lythcott-Haims says.
So what can parents take away from all of this?
Remember, there are plenty of great schools
“The truth is there are a lot of schools where you can get a great education,” Weissbourd says. “There are schools where I think you can get a better undergraduate education than many of the prestigious schools.”
Both Weissbourd and Lythcott-Haims assert that parents should not hyper-focus on just a few brand-name schools. “We’re seeing a commodification of college, where we’re treating college as a brand name, like a car, or pair of jeans, or a soda,” Lythcott-Haims says.
This focus on prestige can be all-consuming for parents, putting extreme pressure on both their young adults, and themselves.
Instead, during the college applications process, Weissbourd and Lythcott-Haims suggest that parents and students look at a wide range of schools.
“While we wait for the system to be better regulated and radically transformed, what we have to realize is there are plenty of great schools,” Lythcott-Haims says. “Widen your blinders, look at all the schools in that book you bought that profiles 200 schools. Relax, you don’t have to fight tooth and nail and cheat and steal to get your kid into a good school. And we have to be more than willing—but excited—to look at more schools than the top 20. Look at the top 200.”
The “right” school is the right fit
When looking through the options for schools, there are many ways to find the “right” school for the student applying. The question shouldn’t be “what’s the best school?” but rather, “what’s the best fit?”
Fit can be a number of things. It could be the school that has a big focus on research, or the campus that sets students up with good internships, or the school that has a great study abroad program. The “right” school does not mean the “top ranked” school, Lythcott-Haims says.
Weissbourd says to instead focus on the value of the school as it relates to the needs of individual students. Take into consideration the variety of factors that go into choosing a college for students and families. Some are more practical and necessary and some are based on social and emotional factors.
“There’s a lot more to colleges than academics,” Weissbourd says. “When researching, your child should look for social atmospheres, exciting community service opportunities, location, class size, student organizations, etc.”
Take a step back
When it comes to college admissions, parents should ask themselves if what they are doing is driven by their kid’s wants and needs, or their own. Ultimately, the path a student takes should be uniquely theirs – and the more parents are involved in the picture, the less autonomy that student has.
In the process of selecting a college, parents need to know when to step back. Weissbourd recommends parents avoid saying “we’re applying” to schools, because it is ultimately that student’s life and future.
“The bigger issue is that there are more common forms of cheating going on,” Weissbourd says. “There are parents who are writing kids’ college essays or hiring outside tutors who are overinvolved in their application. Or they’re pushing kids to do community service just for the sake of putting it on their college applications. These parents are doing things for their kids with no sense of equity for the process. The deck is already so stacked against low income kids – and even middle class kids.”
In addition to cheating the system, these parents end up cheating their own kids. Most of the kids of the parents involved in the scam did not know what their parents were doing, according to court documents.
“In a society where grades and scores are everything to kids, those kids have literally had their sense of self ripped apart,” Lythcott-Haims says. “We should all be worried about the impact to those kids.”
Lythcott-Haims adds that she hopes parents will see that going to these lengths is not worth it.
“I don’t want my child to have the false confidence that they’ve succeed when in fact I’ve bought them into college,” she says. “There is a toll it take on kids’ mental health when they’ve been overparented. We think we’re helping them by pulling all these strings for them, but in the long term all we’re telling them is you can’t be successful if we’re not pulling strings for you.”
Talk about gratitude with teens
Ultimately, attending a college or university is an extraordinary opportunity for any student to learn and to gain experiences for their future. Weissbourd says parents need to help their kids understand this.
“If you’re applying to any selective college in this country, and you get in, you’re in the 20 percent. That’s incredibly lucky,” Weissbourd says. “There are things that parents are doing to breed entitlement in their children, and not talking about how lucky they are to be going to a selective school – or any school— is one of them.”
One of the unfortunate lessons the parents involved in the scam are teaching their kids is that they are entitled to certain privileges and that they can lie and cheat to take whatever they want, Lythcott-Haims says.
“We have to be role models for our kids and teach them that you work hard and take what comes, rather than game the system and take what’s not yours,” she says.
This scam also sends a loud and clear message to all the hard-working students across the country, some who do not have many resources.
“I think it tells those students that the adults who run the society that you’re being raised in are not doing right by you,” Lythcott-Haims says. “[College admissions] is a tremendously opaque process that people game to their advantage because of their advantage. That can make some kids feel really helpless.”
Taking a moment to recognize and practice gratitude, especially for students who are admitted, by honest means, to some of these selective colleges, can benefit them in the long run. Parents can teach their kids to appreciate not only what they are lucky to have, but also to fully embrace opportunities that come their way.
Do an “ethical gut check”
Parents should take a look at themselves right now, where they are, and do an “ethical gut check,” Lythcott-Haims says. She says, as parents, we must ask ourselves, “What lengths am I willing to go to? What am I showing my kid? At the end of the day we are their biggest role models, whether we are their best role models is yet to be seen.”
This scheme sheds light on numerous issues that many parents will be forced to reckon with.
“I hope that our hearts and minds will demand an ethical system,” Lythcott-Haims says. “I hope we will be so incensed by the evidence of what’s happening that we will demand a more ethical, honorable approach to educating our next generation.”