Rich parents keep behaving badly to get kids into college
As students go back to school, college applications season will begin in earnest for 12th graders as they polish off their essays, practice interviews, and take the SAT and ACT tests for the last time.
Kids from educated, affluent families will get plenty of help from parents who will try to get them into schools they think their kids “deserve” — the Ivy League and other prestigious institutions like Stanford, Duke, and The University of Chicago.
Their efforts will include not only test prep but hiring experts to help craft admissions essays, going on college trips, lining up references, and paying for sports and other extracurricular activities to beef up their kids’ resumes. That’s par for the course among American upper-middle-class and wealthy families.
But for an annoying and sizable minority, it just won’t do. These parents aren’t rich enough to buy their precious darlings admission to Ivy U by donating a building or endowing a professorship, and they aren’t corrupt or clueless enough to commit bribery or fraud to give their kids a backdoor entree, like the parents charged in the recent college-admissions scandal.
But affluent parents from Potomac, Md., to The Woodlands, Texas, are bending the rules big-time by getting disability status for their kids to give them a longer time to take tests; changing their legal family structure to qualify for financial aid; browbeating admissions counselors at their kids’ schools or even anonymously dissing other children to boost their own kids’ chances.
Call it “Rich Parents Behaving Badly,” like “Desperate Housewives” meets “Big Little Lies.” Even worse, these aren’t the stereotypical immigrant strivers clawing their way into the middle class; these people already have ample privileges, like legacy admissions preferences, to pass on to their children, but it’s never enough.
Back in June, The Wall Street Journal detailed the outrageous scheme, which is as prevalent in affluent ZIP Codes as zoning restrictions and luxury cars, to give kids extra time to take critical tests like the SAT or ACT.
The Journal reported that in rich communities like Scarsdale, N.Y., Weston, Conn., and Newton, Mass., between 20% and 33% of high-school students get “extra time or another accommodation” to complete college entrance exams, vs. less than 2% of students who attend high schools in poorer areas. Even 17% of students at Manhattan’s tony private Trinity School, which sends 40% of its grads to the Ivy League, get some accommodation in test taking, The Journal reported.
Many of these students get special waivers, called 504 designations, granted by their schools, that give them extra time on all exams they take in high school. They typically go to students who have anxiety issues or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
True, ADHD is diagnosed more often these days, but poorer families can’t afford to get a legitimate diagnosis, let alone a bogus one.
Plus, the administrators of the SAT or ACT don’t notify colleges which students had extra time to complete their tests. It’s a loophole wide enough to drive a school bus through.
The other big scheme that should seem shocking but isn’t was reported by ProPublica: Dozens of families in the Chicago suburbs are giving up legal guardianship of their children during their junior or senior years in high school, allowing them to declare themselves financially independent and thus qualify for more need-based financial aid.
“It’s a scam,” Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told ProPublica. “Wealthy families are manipulating the financial aid process to be eligible for financial aid they would not be otherwise eligible for. They are taking away opportunities from families that really need it.”
Related: Parents giving up legal rights to their children to get more financial aid exposes deep flaws in U.S. college system
Meanwhile, at the exclusive Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., whose alumni include Nancy Reagan, Chelsea Clinton, and Sasha and Malia Obama, parents upset at how their kids fared in the college admissions process were so abusive that two of the school’s college counselors resigned.
Some parents even went “so far as to disparage other students, presumably to give their own teens a leg up,” The Washington Post reported. They apparently spread rumors and sent anonymous tips to administrators that other people’s kids were just no darn good.
In an email, Bryan Garman, the head of the school, admonished parents that “the circulation of rumors about students and/or the verbal assault of employees are antithetical to the School’s values,” the newspaper reported.
That’s an understatement: As a historically Quaker school, Sidwell Friends prizes enlightenment and tolerance. Some parents obviously never got the memo.
I have no illusion horrible people like this will ever learn anything. But if there’s any justice in this world, their kids will be dinged everywhere but their local community college. It would be the best thing that ever happened to the kids and exactly what the parents deserve.
Howard R. Gold is a MarketWatch columnist. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold. “No-Nonsense College” appears monthly. Please send questions or ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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