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Reflections on Varsity Blues: A College Counselor’s Perspective on Parenting Through the Admissions Process

by Lauren Lieberman, Director of College Counseling

This summer I took some time to reflect on the details of the largest public admissions scandal in history and the implications for how we work with students and their families. I read the articles, I talked with colleagues, I pored over the court documents and I listened to a 6-episode podcast called Gangster Capitalism that detailed the scandal.  

A quick recap of Varsity Blues in brief for those of you who chose to tune out (because not hearing about it was almost not an option), accused 33 parents of paying more than $25 million to William Rick Singer, the person at the center of the operation facilitating both the falsification of student test scores as well as bribes to college coaches and officials. The schemes were elaborate, going so far as to represent some students as recruited athletes for sports that they may not even have played, all with the hopes of getting them in through the athletic channels at the school. In sum, 51 people are charged in the case and over his career, it is alleged that Singer worked with close to 800 families.

The scandal made for salacious news; friends and family members from all over were more eager to talk about my line of work than ever before. The media depicted this case as wealthy parents going over the top, a mix of all the elements the media loves - celebrities, money, college admissions, etc. Business leaders, actors, and people who had been seen as the pinnacle of success, engaging in behaviors that were atrocious. All with the goal of trying to “help” their kids. The motives and actions brought to light in this scandal are sickening to me, to us, on so many levels. What they did was illegal and unequivocally wrong, but the sentiments behind the actions were all too familiar.

After almost two decades in this profession, I have built personal relationships with people on both the college and high school side, some of whom were at the very schools directly impacted by this scandal. As we connected this summer, I realized the effects of this scandal rocked the admissions world in a more profound way than you can gather reading the New York Times. Lost in the headlines and images was the deep substance that lies below the surface. Issues of trust, faith, the pressures our kids face, the judgements we face as parents, the nuances of the college admissions process, and so much more fell away with the tabloid-style reporting. 

How did we get here? Every parent wants the best for their kid. What takes a parent from “wanting what’s best” and “wanting to keep doors and opportunities open,” things we all wish for as parents, and pushes them into the realm of photoshopped athletic images?

As the summer came to a close, I asked myself what I could take from this scandal and how, along with this fabulous team, we could do an even better job of supporting our kids. 

As you help to guide your students, here is what I hope you will hold at the center of your thoughts, feelings and conversations.

Your Kid Is Enough (Just As They Are)

One of the most frequent questions I got from friends was, “Do you think it’s possible that the kids really didn’t know?” Seeing families through this process year after year, I think it is absolutely possible, and likely, that in most cases, the kids had no idea what their parents were doing. This was the part of this scandal perhaps the most heartbreaking. Your kids are amazing. They are smart and talented, they are hilariously funny and kind to others, they are passionate artists and athletes, learners and readers, musicians and scholars. They work hard (most days) to be the best versions of themselves. They want nothing more than to make you proud and I was reminded of this again, just last week, when leading a small discussion with my advisory about our summer reading book, Excellent Sheep. They talked about the fear they have about letting their parents down. When parents overstep, over-manage, or over-engineer their day-to-day, kids internalize the message that their parents don’t think they can do things on their own. Kids grow and mature at different rates and our roles as parents shift in parallel to this. By the time SSA students are applying to college, we see them as the primary architects/authors of their college search and application process, with us as the consultants around them to support and guide. They can, they will rise to the challenges before them, and they will have missteps along the way, but this is what is preparing them to lead boldly into all that is ahead.

Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be - Obsession With College Prestige Isn’t Healthy For Anyone

The admissions scandal focused on getting kids into a small handful of schools, all with admit rates under 20% and some in the single digits. The very narrow vision of what makes a “good school” based on overall selectivity and U.S. News Rankings is skewing the lens for our students of what matters for college. In the book with this very title, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Frank Bruni provides the reader with anecdotes and evidence to work against the commonly held ideal by students in schools like Shady Side, that their futures will be determined and their worth will be established by which colleges admit them or deny them. 

As parents, I challenge you to make an effort of pointing out and holding up for your kids to see, models of success, and the range of colleges they attended. I looked in on some of these people for my own family - our pediatrician as well as the founder of our entire pediatrics practice, a group successfully leading in so many ways, both attended Washington & Jefferson College (admit rate 47%). Our family dentist, who sees everyone in the extended family (and so many others they know), graduated from Pitt (admit rate over 50%). Their coolest Aunt attended the University of Delaware (admit rate close to 70%). Some of their favorite teachers graduated from St. Vincent College, Duquesne University, and close friends from the Univ. of Wisconsin and George Washington University and Lewis & Clark College. The language we use around success and where people went to college is important and our kids are paying close attention. You can start and restart these conversations with your kid at any point. It is never too late. 

We Must Act With Integrity

When we met with the seniors last week, we talked with them about integrity in the college process. We shared our common litmus test, if you find yourself asking the questions “How would they ever know if…” You’ve ventured into dangerous territory. One of the recorded conversations from the scandal we heard a dad saying something like, “I’m not worried about the ethics of this all, I’m worried that if we get caught, my daughter is going to be destroyed. What if someone finds out?”

How would they know if you didn’t really go to French club in your sophomore year or if you liberally rounded up all those hours of community service? What are our kids internalizing when we “call them in sick” to work on a project they’ve not completed?  Modeling for your children the highest levels of integrity will allow them to be more whole leaders in our community and beyond.

In a piece he wrote for the New York Times in April of 2015 called The Moral Bucket List, David Brooks talks about two sets of virtues, the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues, he says, are the “skills you bring to the marketplace.” The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral - whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. In a pervasive culture that spends more time focusing on teaching and developing the skills and strategies for the resume virtues, we have to work even harder on building the inner character. These three points, when reinforced, help our kids develop these eulogy virtues.

I am the first to admit that it’s easy to lose perspective when you see your kid struggling - whether it’s to complete a task or with something more abstract like uncertainty or fear of failure. While my kids are in elementary school, when my daughter tells me that she didn’t play with anyone on the playground, or my son is struggling to complete his summer homework packet, my instinct is to spring into action. We’ll plan a play date, we’ll plan five actually, we’ll hire a tutor to help with the work. I want to minimize the struggle. Yet, I work hard to be patient and stay mindful of my reactions, sorting out what are my own fears versus what my kid actually wants or needs in those moments. 

By the very fact that your kids attend Shady Side, they have many advantages as they apply to college. They have access to some of the very best resources and facilities, they have teams of adults and peers invested in their success. We are grateful to work with your children and to partner with you to ensure that this process is one of growth, reflection, and pride.