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March 2019

Are College Admissions a Corrupt Joke?

Like every parent, I have many thoughts about this college admissions thing. Unlike most parents in America, I have proximity. One of the children named in the indictment was my daughter’s classmate. Many of the kids named are familiar to my own as the private school social circles are small, if not incestuous.

The kids aren’t bad kids, but they aren’t who I’d go to for morals and ethics lessons this week. Perhaps later in life they will be; I’m not prepared to write anyone off whose brain isn’t finished growing. These are kids who have to survive in the homes in which they’re being raised; every family situation has its challenges.

Kids whose parents buy their way into schools are destined for failure.

Understand that side doors to admissions do not begin in college. Pre-school admissions can be a full-contact sport here in LA just as it is in New York City and many other cities. The Hollywood Reporter recently published a list of K-12 schools “best suited for famous families and moguls in the making.” Yes, it is horrifying. Yes, it is our reality.

School admissions coaches are apparently in demand here in Los Angeles. Parents pay people to get their children into the right preschool so they can attend the right kindergarten which is the perceived path to the Ivy League. I don’t have the details. The level of insanity surrounding this far exceeds my interest in nursery (my son didn’t like it so we skipped it altogether). Further, we didn’t have the disposable income for things like this when the kids were little. I was clipping coupons and grocery shopping at 10 pm because we didn’t use the babysitters we couldn’t have afforded anyhow.

Affluent and/or famous parents routinely have a difficult time with preschool admissions.

I did not choose my kids’ schools based on anything that would further anyone’s career. We chose the K-8 because they nurtured kids with integrity. Later my children would choose their high school, hoping for a reprieve from the pressure that Hollywood kids endure and they wanted academic rigor. When Alexander graduates I’ll fill in more details. Until that day my kids will enjoy much-deserved privacy.

The past couple of years have been all about higher education for me as well.

A little more than a year ago I was asked to join the CSUP Foundation. The foundation exists to support the students at CSU-Pueblo where I received a BS years ago. Going to college was a simple process for me. I applied and then attended said University. There was no fanfare, tutoring, nor test prep that I can recall. I wanted to study kinesiology and not PE. There weren’t a lot of places to do that around 1990. Pueblo was affordable, the tuition (out of state) was too, and I never had a class size larger than 25 or so. I went there to learn kinesiology, and I left there with some solid science, professors who loved their work and knew me well, but mostly I learned how to learn – and for many people that is the intended outcome of a university education. If that is the only thing a student acquires in the course of a Bachelor’s Degree, I believe that they have received as rich a schooling as any institution could hope to offer.

This combination of sending my children off to colleges that required much of them for admissions, and spending my free time immersed in the world of public higher education has been nothing if not eye-opening. The financial stewardship I’ve witnessed at the foundation has been passionate, conservative, and inspirational. That a non-profit would be formed and used to steal academic opportunity from both the children of wealth and the potential student whose seat they’ve stolen only adds a layer of sadness.

Wealthy parents routinely rob their children of academic opportunities.

Our son accepted an offer of admission to his first choice school in December, and for that I am grateful. I remain concerned for his classmates who are awaiting decisions. My hope is that my daughter’s classmate’s parenting didn’t ruin the college admissions experience for these kids who are graduating two years later.

If the school’s reputation is tarnished, with the dramatic exception of the scholarship kids, all will be well.

Should these prep school kids go to community college and transfer to a four-year school in a small town with a generous admissions policy, their futures are bright. These are kids who know how to get a job. We have students who know how to present themselves; they know the people who do the hiring. Many of the country’s prep school grads don’t need college for a career so much as they need it as a graceful entrance to adulthood.

These children, the children I have raised, and their caucasian prep school peers, do not need a prestige school to live a prestigious lifestyle. I’d even argue that getting out of the 1% (11% in the case of Dartmouth) bubble would enrich their lives and livelihoods rather than damage them. A school sans prestige is likely a place where they would learn more than USC with its marching band in donor back yard fêtes.

Little of this applies to kids who aren’t caucasian in America. None of this applies to underprivileged kids or kids whose parents never went to college.

These are terrible statements to make yet they are true. Not speaking about the endless and savage inequalities (this is not a new phenomenon) in education will not make it any less correct. Perhaps this scandal will serve to reopen discussions about the students who are denied an education from early childhood onward. Maybe alumni of some of these esteemed institutions will rethink their charitable giving and follow the lead of great men like LeBron James. The Harvard University Endowment exceeded $37 billion in 2017. Is it a source of pride for graduates of “a school in Boston” to contribute to that fund before contributing to the failing public schools in the neighborhoods where the women who clean their homes are raising children?

(hint: I love Donors Choose, and my mom spent my childhood teaching elementary school in 90002)

Free range parenting, progressive schools without real homework, learning to knit instead of math class… that’s all for white kids – because the sad fact is that the world will treat black and LatinX kids differently and they need to achieve more in a classroom to be treated with dignity. I hate that truth, and if you do too, please pay attention to Kelly Wickham and Being Black at School.

I hope you are furious about that fact.

I hope your fury leads to action.

With that, let’s return to the CSU-Pueblo Foundation and the work they are doing. This is work that I’m not very good at (yet) but devoted to mastering. This foundation supports students of varying ages and family situations. The foundation supports veterans and kids out of foster care and students who cared for paraplegic siblings since age four… and those are just the essays I’ve personally read.

College changes lives in small ways for children of privilege. The privilege need not be that they be a billionaire’s child. For some privilege can be growing up in a home with two married parents who love books, math, politics, or movies – sometimes a little education and a lot of love can level a playing field. Being able to count on dinner and stable housing may be the advantage that a student needs.

Elite schools have the potential to provide untold social mobility to lower-income students.

Sons and daughters of TV stars, lawyers, hedge fund managers, and retail moguls attending an elite college add a  perceived feather in the family’s collective cap. It’s as important as driving a Rolls Royce instead of a BMW, living in Malibu instead of the Valley, or wearing this season’s “it bag”.

Yale has an endowment that exceeds $25 billion yet a paltry 8.8% of its students are low income.

Social Mobility Index

Check your school at

I say that elite schools have perceived value in part because the academic credentials of the last two Republican presidents make it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that those men are the best and brightest that Yale and The University of Pennsylvania could attract. Did their educations propel them to the White House or did their familial wealth and existing connections get the job?

Good Reads:
The extensive effort to bury Donald Trump’s grades
The Legacy of Legacies (George W Bush & Yale)

Much like the PAC 10, The Ivy League was meant to identify athletics, not academics. Stanley Woodward coined the term. Though steeped in tradition and oozing with opportunity, an Ivy League education is one of many paths to success.

As much of America recognizes the two actresses who have been arrested, this story of everyday shenanigans will stay in the news a bit longer than if it were the typical executives and heirs. That the uber-rich cheat to benefit their children (and their own egos) doesn’t outrage me. This happens a million times every day. I can’t muster outrage because I’d live in a state of perpetual fury and that’s exhausting.

Instead, I’ll devote some time and energy to making higher education more accessible to the students who have worked doubly hard with a fraction of the resources the wealthy enjoy. I’ll look for ways to help where help matters most.

If this week made you mistrust the world a little more, I’m very sorry. It can be easy to confuse affluence with achievement, and though often there may be a correlation between the two we cannot assume it is a causal relationship.