The Mother Lode: Notes on the college-admissions scandal
“When I first read about the college-admissions scandal, I was shocked, horrified and outraged. And then I thought, why didn’t I think of that?” a Greenwich mother told me last week.
She was joking — but while this is not a laughing matter, the scandal brings up a whole lot of uncomfortable in a town like Greenwich and beyond.
“The most shocking thing about this college scandal is that I don’t find it all that shocking,” another Greenwich mother confided.
I’ve heard this confession from more parents in Greenwich that I can count in these last few weeks. Let’s not forget, one of the defendants in the case, Gordon Caplan, is from our town.
OK, but come on. There’s always been a lot of truth stretching in the college application process. And while we may not go as far as Photoshopping our kid’s face over some luge champion’s yearbook photo, applicants and their parents work the system — they always have. I mean, how many times did I actually attend that “Social Awareness Action Club” I created during junior year of high school? And why did that kid work to become top of the heap in some rarefied sport or instrument?
“Because if you are the only one in your high school who plays the harp, there is no heap to be on top of,” my friend laughs. “You are the heap.”
But it’s gotten a lot worse, especially with parents who have the means to go there. And a whole lot of Greenwich has a whole lot of means.
“Greenwich probably started the whole thing,” my socialist friend from Brooklyn remarks. Ever since I moved to Greenwich this guy treats me like I live in Versailles, circa 1731— which, coming from Brooklyn, is rich.
Yet the amount of money you can spend on college admission prep has gone completely haywire, it’s true. That Princeton Review class I took at the local Y in 1988 looks like a playdate compared to prep courses these days, both in cost and content.
There is a tutor in Greenwich who charges $500 per hour for SAT tutoring. And here’s the rub: It works. Her kids score at the top percentile time and time again. So, guess what? She’s rolling in it.
“And Park Slope is worse,” I tell Trotsky. There are tutors who charge north of $1,000 per hour in Brooklyn and beyond.
Is shelling out that kind of cash a form of paying your way in? Don’t get me wrong, I am not comparing SAT tutoring to paying someone to take the SATs for your kid. But equal playing field? That super-brilliant kid in Port Chester who happens to a be terrible test-taker and has never seen a harp just doesn’t get that same shot. He never did. He is lucky if anyone even notices or cares.
“Yeah, but college admissions offices know that. There are different expectations for underprivileged applicants,” a Greenwich mother told me. “So, our kids need to stand out all the more.” Her daughter has been playing the viola and speaking Mandarin since she was 3.
If anything, some parents feel they need to stress that their child did NOT get tutored for the SATs, coming from a town like Greenwich. Provided that is true.
Another friend made a different point. “I am furious,” she said. “Here you are, your child makes sacrifices and works really hard on a team sport through weekends and long hours while you schlepp them to Timbuktu and back, and some parent comes along and lies about their kid doing the same. And the coaches, who see all the hard work and dedication it takes for your kid to get there, end up colluding with all of this? Are you kidding me?”
But did it surprise her? No.
What even is a level playing field these days? Does that concept even exist anymore? Did it ever?
A legacy at Princeton whose parents give tons of money to the school: Isn’t that a sure thing? What constitutes bribery and what does not?
“But at the same time, “ my friend goes on, “these colleges use a whole lot of that money to make sure kids who could never afford college now can.”
So, what happened here?
“With this scandal, it’s like someone fell off a cliff,” a friend told me. “It’s as if they said, ‘If gaming the system has become the norm, why not just lie? How far is that really from what we’re already doing’?”
And when all is said and done, where do we end up?
“I think in the end, all we really want is our kids to be happy,” a friend’s father said recently during a wedding toast.
“As long they’re happy at Yale,” my husband chimes in.
I think my friend’s 10-year-old son said it best. “I think the saddest part about parent’s lying for their kids, is that they don’t believe they can do it on their own.”
Claire Tisne Haft is a former publishing and film executive, raising her family in Greenwich while working on a freelance basis on books and films.