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Sat, Dec. 07

Column | College cheating scandal reveals bad parenting at its worst

Bribing your way into college. Who would have thought?

It would have been a way around my rather pedestrian exam scores. My old man did threaten to put a horse’s head in the beds of several admissions officers but, fortunately, the good folks at Villanova University saw their way clear to let me in before my father went all Vito Corleone.

I do wonder what would have become of me had I attended, say Harvard or Stanford. I dream. I dream. Perhaps I would have been secretary of state, or the president of a big company, or a college professor with a column.

I realize I wouldn’t make it farther than the parking lot of either institution in today’s hyper-competitive climate in which parents are willing to do just about anything to make sure their children have a meaningful college experience.

Earlier this week, we learned what “anything” might entail.

An FBI investigation revealed a massive college admissions scam in which parents paid a consultant millions to get their kids into some of the country’s most prestigious universities by any means necessary – bribing entrance exam administrators, paying off people to take tests for their students, phony resumes, doctored exam scores, bribing coaches to say kids were athletes when they weren’t and more.

The accused include a couple of actresses - Felicity Huffman, of “Desperate Housewives,” and Lori Loughlin, one of the stars of “Full House.” Say it isn’t so, Lori!

Nine college coaches were also charged. The head women’s soccer coach at Yale, said investigators, took a $400,000 bribe to admit a student, who apparently didn’t know a soccer ball from polo mallet, as a student-athlete. The student was, in fact, admitted. This little transaction cost the parents more than $1 million.

The ringleader of the scheme, William Rick Singer, who pleaded guilty Tuesday to racketeering, money laundering and other charges said he facilitated 761 “side doors” to admission.

“They want guarantees, they want this thing done. They don’t want me messing around with this thing,” he said, according to court documents. “And so they want in at certain schools.”

There are a lot of storylines here - the Hollywood angle, the money-is-no-object-when-it-comes to-my-baby narrative, the athletic recruitment scam.

But one of the interesting things about this case is that no students were charged because, according to the FBI, they didn’t know what their parents were up to.

And herein lies the irony.

Parents are so desperate to create a meaningful college experience for their precious children, they are willing to cheat to do it which, of course, makes the whole pursuit meaningless.

We can fool ourselves and believe that this is the kind of thing that happens only within elite circles but it’s actually happening all over the country, on a much smaller scale, and it’s usually not about the children.

In her book, published in 2015, “How to Raise an Adult,” Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean at Stanford, asks a key question about parenting, specifically among baby boomers.

“Did Boomers’ egos become interlaced with the accomplishments of their children to such an extent that they felt their own success was compromised if their children fell short of expectations?”

The answer is “yes.”

“Our kids’ accomplishments are the measure of our own success and worth; that college bumper sticker on the rear of our car can be as much about our own sense of accomplishment as our kids’,” writes Lythcott-Haims.

What the FBI revealed this week was a byproduct of something much bigger than a scheme to buy a college degree. This case, sweeping as it is, only highlights the problem.

We use our children as chess pieces. We plan their every move, without their involvement.

We help them avoid conflict. We intervene on their behalf. We make all the bad things go away.

And I’ve spent enough time in and around higher education to see the consequences - young people unprepared for adulthood, terrified of independence, unable to manage time, unable and unwilling to take constructive criticism, unable to deal with rejection and disappointment.

If any good is to come from this latest scandal, perhaps it is the realization that our young people are the ones who will have to deal with the results of our overparenting.

Hopefully, at some point, we’ll realize that the bumper sticker isn’t worth it.

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