Column: Admissions scandal exposes much that’s wrong with what we teach kids to value

Above, students at Stanford. In the first lawsuit to come out of the college admissions scandal, several students are suing Yale, Stanford and other schools, saying they were denied a fair shot at admission.
Above, students at Stanford. In the first lawsuit to come out of the college admissions scandal, several students are suing Yale, Stanford and other schools, saying they were denied a fair shot at admission.
(Ben Margot / AP)

Stanford was out of the question for me.

My grades were borderline and my parents didn’t make enough money to bribe anyone.

But even in my working-class family and at my less-than-stellar public high school, you had basically three choices: Enlist in the military, work at one of the local factories or go straight to college.

The Vietnam War was waning and the mills required hard labor. I know because I worked in one of them one summer and realized why everyone in my town had said loud and clear that if you’re not cut out for honest work and callused hands, go to college.

So I did. First to a community college, then to San Jose State University. My first semester, I wrote a check for $90. Not for a class. For the semester.


Today, the prices have gone up a bit.

And the competition, too. Especially at the high-falutin’ campuses.

College is still a good bet for most, if not all, young folks. But the process of choosing and getting into school is nothing like it was in my day, and by that, I don’t mean things have gotten better.

The college entrance scandal is an extreme example of how parents have bought into a high-pressure culture of expectation that might be more harmful than helpful, especially for those who put more weight on a fancy diploma than a life of meaning.

But even beyond the shameful details of the scandal, we need to take a closer look at what we’re putting our kids through, in some cases to burnish our own bragging rights rather than our children’s self-interest.

If you’re a kid on a college track in high school today, the pressure is more intense than ever. I speak as someone with sons who are 40 and 38 and a daughter who is 15. Like a lot of other parents are probably doing now, I worry about ways I may have been guilty of buying into the blind drive for a fancy diploma more than I should have, even if I never would have considered buying my kid’s way into college.

But we have a good chance now to stop and take a look at this monster we’ve created.

The whole purpose in life for teens should be to have a well-rounded high school experience and begin to figure out who they are and how to think, not to become slaves to the college admissions grind. But today’s kids are pushed, prodded and repeatedly tested, and it’s usually knowledge they are graded on, not wisdom, maturity or curiosity.

We ask our kids: How many advanced, or AP courses, are you taking? How many are your friends taking? And they worry: If they don’t get straight As, or score 1,400 or better on the SAT, are they doomed to never set foot on the prestigious campuses they’ve been conditioned to strive for?


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“We’re in this arms race to be the best, and it’s a zero sum game in which you’ve got to be successful because there are winners and losers,” said Tim Klein, a former high school counselor who thinks too many students — pushed by parents — value the status of certain schools over the purpose of going to college.

“A ‘B’ in chemistry is not just a ‘B’ in chemistry. You’ve just sealed your fate because you’re not getting into the college that deems you successful,” said Klein, who runs Project Wayfinder, which advocates for purpose-based education in high schools.

“We’re seeing this whole mental health crisis and I think a lot of it is because there’s so much pressure on kids to go through an unbelievable amount of work to get into these elite colleges,” Klein said.

Klein said Wayfinder, inspired in part by Bill Damon’s research at Stanford University’s Center on Adolescence, is about a focus on integrity, civic engagement and helping students figure out what they want to do with their lives rather than what they think they’re expected to do.

That’s not to detract from students who know exactly where they want to go to college and what they want to do — students who work their tails off to achieve their goals.

More power to them.

But Klein said those who go after the fanciest diplomas aren’t necessarily happier or more successful than those who don’t.

“I really don’t think the school you go to matters. I think that has limited value,” said Klein. “The reasons you go to college are a much better indication of success than whatever name is on the college sign.”

The college entrance cheating scandal is an example of blind ambition at its most grotesque. Well-heeled parents — including CEOs and celebrities — are accused of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to have their kids’ SATs rigged and to cover the cost of bribing their way into USC, UCLA, Stanford, Yale, Georgetown and other schools.

Full coverage: Dozens charged in connection with college admissions scheme »

Sometimes you see parents behaving so badly, you think to yourself that they should be arrested.

Well, now they have been.

And can the Trojans get through a semester without a reminder that the word “scandal” starts with SC?

Now it’s a honcho in the athletic department, Donna Heimel, who’s accused of taking $1.3 million in bribes to get two dozen non-athletes into USC under the guise of athletic prowess. Apparently, it’s possible to never have been on a boat other than a yacht and get into USC by pretending to be a crew recruit.

But putting those vulgarities aside, what are the lessons for the rest of us?

For starters, there are more than 4,000 colleges in the United States, and every one of them has great teachers and something to offer.

As Klein noted, we need to ask students not where they want to go to college, but why.

What are their strengths; what are their weaknesses; what do they think are the biggest problems in the world and in their communities?

And how would they define what it means to live a life of purpose?

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez