When paying for admissions help is a standard practice in a community, parents and children say they feel pressure to keep up.
The F.B.I.’s indictment on Tuesday of 50 people who were accused of participating in a scheme to secure college admissions through bribes renewed a national debate over the role that money plays in college admissions.
Wealthy parents can lawfully grease the admissions paths of their children by making large donation to colleges. And many parents — wealthy or not — hire college admissions consultants to help their children identify schools to apply to and complete their applications.
We asked parents and applicants who have enlisted the help of a consultant why they felt the need to do so, if it helped and if they had any ethical quandaries.
Many of the more than 500 who responded defended the practice of paying for services to help their child get into college. Others questioned the entire system.
“In retrospect, everything I did was misguided and unethical,” wrote one parent from Los Angeles.
Here is a selection of their responses, which have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
‘We find it baffling’
They paid a consultant $2,000.
As our daughter started the college application process last year, we realized that we were completely ignorant about how it had changed. Of course we told her that her life outcome would be fine if she went to the University of Washington, but she wanted to see what she could do.
We paid a very savvy counselor $2,000 to advise our daughter how to choose which colleges to put on her list, and how to make the most of her essay.
Our daughter took a total of 13 AP classes in high school. She managed a 3.9 GPA with this course load and got top AP test scores. That, along with an SAT score of 1490, seemed solid to us, but the counselor said she was on the edge at some of the elite schools she was dreaming of, including our alma mater, Swarthmore, as well as Yale and Wesleyan.
The counselor also helped with the essay, mostly just providing edits. We were completely hands-off, and have still never seen the essay. Our daughter had to put in the hard work, and in the end, she applied Early Decision to Swarthmore and was admitted.
The flagrant bribery and conspiracy of those indicted in the admissions scandal is a personal insult to families with students who seek admittance through sheer grit.
We find it baffling that parents would demonstrate to their children that in life major accomplishments can be purchased with cash, rather than earned through hard work and commitment. — Brendan Works and Kirsten Wild, Seattle
Our public school counselor ‘was swamped’
Her son’s college consultant charged $3,000.
We engaged the services of an admissions company in Pittsburgh for my son, and they could not have been more professional. The counselor at our public high school was swamped and had no expertise or interest in college admissions advising for students on academic tracks.
The private counselor walked our son through the application process, but our son did all of the work himself. They just kept him on deadline and focused on the goal, as he was not a self-starter. I also respected that they tried to match each student to a school that best fit their abilities and interests, not necessarily an Ivy.
We were fortunate that we could afford $3,000 for this service, but the payoff was beyond our wildest dreams. Our son ended up getting a full scholarship to a great university (Drexel in Philadelphia) that had a new department in his area of interest (sport management).
We purchased a legitimate service, and our son got into school on his own merits. — Jane Freund, Pittsburgh
My daughter earned her spot
Her daughter’s college consultant charged $2,000.
My daughter hired a local consultant who basically helped with her essay and with targeting which schools would be most likely to accept her. My daughter is at the school she legitimately earned a right to be in, and she’s proud and happy. We could have afforded to pay $15,000 like Felicity Huffman — but I’d die of guilt if I did that.
The type of fraud which these people indulged in is outrageous but not surprising in a world obsessed with labels. They are depriving another student of an opportunity! It’s a disgrace! — Jyoti Minocha, Vienna, Va.
We understand our privilege
Her son’s college consultant charged $3,000.
We had a consultant who legitimately helped identify schools that were likely to give merit scholarships, that my son would be able to get into based on his credentials, and had strength in the field of study he was interested in. She also helped us stay on task and meet deadlines.
We understand the privilege and social collateral that our socioeconomic status affords us. I am a first generation college graduate in my family. It would not be consistent with our values to use our privilege to gain access that was not legitimately accessible. — Dianna Howard, Winston-Salem, N.C.
‘I had a goal I worked hard to achieve’
His family paid for a consultant who charged about $100 an hour plus thousands of dollars for an SAT tutor.
It wasn’t so much my consultant who helped me — I actually despised her for telling me all the places she (wrongly) thought I wasn’t competitive. But she did find me an SAT tutor who, at the cost of what I’m sure amounted to thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars, raised my score over 200 points.
It was clear to my high school self we were paying this women a lot of money. It was apparent that most of America didn’t have this service, and that felt unfair, which of course it was. But it wasn’t unethical per se. By that, I mean it wasn’t illegal or even vaguely underhanded.
I believe the college admissions process is unfair to the disadvantaged or lesser-advantaged, but at the end of the day, the system is what it is, and I had a goal I worked hard to achieve. I don’t feel my family or I did anything wrong by seeking professional input and tutoring.
I think the issue arises when people believe in the myth of their own excellence when the reality is that from an early age your admissions prospects — and life prospects — are shaped by factors outside your control. — Zach Dubin, San Francisco
Paying for an inside look at the admissions process
His family hired a consultant for $15,000.
My family hired a former MIT admissions counselor. We paid him $15,000 to give a three-day workshop on how to optimize ourselves for admissions, and we had weekly calls with him to edit my admissions essays.
He was a cruel person, denigrated me often during our class, and he made me break down in the fall of my senior year. But his general advice was useful, and it may have contributed to me writing the correct style of essay to get into a prestigious STEM university.
He, as a former admissions counselor, gave us the insider look on how MIT admissions work. I’m not sure if we should have had that information. Otherwise, there was no foul play. — Alexander Cui, Pasadena, Calif.
‘I became the black sheep’
Her parents paid several thousand dollars for test preparation and consultants in the late 1980s.
My parents both went to Ivies, they had me enroll in test prep, hired guidance counselors and paid for the best summer programs. Our family wagon was plastered with stickers from their and my sibling’s Ivy League alma maters.
It was clear the goal was bragging rights and not my happiness.
So did a consultant try to help me? Yes. Did it work? No. I cracked under the pressure. I became the black sheep when I went to a perfectly acceptable state school in New England. My parents refused to attend my graduation.
Today I run a successful business in a foreign country while raising a child alone. What we really need to evaluate is how we measure success in life and what really brings happiness. (Hint: it’s not money from a fancy degree.) — Alexandra Hutchings, Paris
‘Everything I did was misguided and unethical’
She says she lost count of how much she spent on college prep services.
My intelligent son with learning disabilities endured a grueling college prep high school, endless test prep and the experience of hearing his life recounted to him in college application essays written largely by me. He endured it to get into the college of my and his father’s choice.
Then, after a miserable and aimless two months, he bravely dropped out of the college he never wanted to go to. He has decided to pursue a path his parents cannot game. He is going to the Army.
In retrospect, everything I did was misguided and unethical. My son had no interest in college but my narcissism couldn’t take it. It’s a bad scene when the military looks like the more ethical option to a young man than the hypocrisy and total madness of the admissions racket. — Margaret Cranston, Los Angeles
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