‘We’ve lost our way’
GREENWICH — Bribery, cheating and mail fraud; scheming college counselors, unethical test proctors and unscrupulous Hollywood stars.
The juicy details of the college-cheating scandal that made headlines across the country this week — and touched down in Greenwich — have a few drops left to be squeezed, but experts in the field say parents of college-bound teens should bracket that temptation and use the event as reason to evaluate whether they are unduly driving their child’s application process, when they should be taking a backseat.
“Parents take on way too much of this with a good heart, but the message it sends is, ‘We’re going to do it and save you from it,’” West Hartford-based college consultant Laura Boyer said. “If we don’t shift that dynamic, it’s unhealthy for children and their development.”
The families who engaged in the fraud effectively told their children being at the top is worth sacrificing morals, and that whatever their children could do on their own would not be good enough, said Greenwich therapist Orla Cashman.
“I think it highlights that we’re misguided,” she said. “We’ve lost our way.”
Cashman sees an omnipresent pressure to achieve in Greenwich, which is also the home of one of the indicted parents, Gordon Caplan.
The success-driven culture is particularly evident in Greenwich families’ approach to college, said author Heather Wong Tesorario.
The writer spent a year embedded in town while writing “The Class” about superstar science students at Greenwich High School, and describes in her book the ever-present pressure on teens to do well and get into a good college.
“It’s a community with a lot of very successful, high-performing people who want their kids to be successful, high-performing in equal measure,” she said.
But experts wonder whether the drive for name-brand schools is worth the pressure, the money doled out for test prep and consultants, the calling in of connections and even alumni donations?
“Broadly speaking, we have sold the American population that a college education is absolutely necessary for success,” said Christine Lai, who, in addition to founding the Special Education Legal Fund, which provides support for families of children with special needs, also volunteers to do admissions interviews for her alma mater.
Upper-echelon families are particularly obsessed with name-brand schools, Lai and Boyer agreed.
Once, a mother told Boyer: “My child has to apply to an Ivy or Ivy-like institution so that she can meet her future spouse and live the life she has been accustomed to.” Another said her son “had to attend a tier-one college or university so he can reach his goals faster because employers are more apt to hire graduates from top-tier schools.”
Tesorario observed in some cases one college being built up as the single place where a teen could achieve his or her goals, making the application process an ever-present source of tension and secrecy. Parents and their teens kept where they applied a secret to discourage competitive, cut-throat behavior, but the opacity among parents and students ramped up the possibility of bad feelings, she said.
“As a society, from birth to 18, we are disproportionately tilted in this direction that college is the most important thing that we’re working toward and I don’t think that that is healthy,” she said. “College is not the ultimate determinate of success or happiness in life.”
Whole families bought into the college craze and were consumed by it, she said.
“The parents, by and large, were just as much wrapped up in it as the kids were,” Tesorario said.
Kids pushed to attend a parent’s alma mater can face a particular battle. Unlike their parents, who enrolled in the given school when acceptance rates were five to 10 times higher, college-bound teens today have to be more competitive because the schools now have single-digit acceptance rates, Lai said.
“What would really change the system is if people became disillusioned for the product,” Lai said.
Another factor feeding the college frenzy is image: Parents care so deeply because it also reflects on them, Cashman said.
“I also think that their child’s trajectory or success or failure is seen as a reflection of them and their parenting as opposed to that child and their experience,” she said.
But unless parents dial back their involvement, Boyer said, their children will not learn how to tackle problems on their own and are more likely to fail once they get to their parents’ dream school.
Instead, the job of the parent is to teach, guide and facilitate their children’s accomplishments, and accompany them, Cashman said.
“Learn who your child is,” she said.