News

Pressure over college admissions 'out of control'

Expert: Parents mean well, but misguided 'help' can harm students

For local parents, high school students and college counselors, news this week of a multimillion-dollar college admissions bribery scandal that involved both Midpeninsula parents and hundreds of thousands of dollars was shocking -- but not wholly unexpected, they said.

Despite efforts by Palo Alto Unified and other local school districts and organizations to encourage a healthier approach to the college-admissions process, many parents' desires for the best for their children has devolved into unhealthy fear, according to parents, college counselors and experts. And that fear has led to what one parent described as the "hyper approach" to doing whatever it takes to get one's child into the best college.

"There's an arms-race quality to this," said Palo Alto Unified School District Trustee Ken Dauber, himself a high school parent. "I think there's a lot of anxiety around this that clearly affects not just what parents are investing in but students at school. It's harder to focus on how do we do things at school that are valuable in terms of education when we have this other system out there waiting for the outputs of this."

Parents said they, like their children, feel a social pressure linked to college admissions. It's not news that parents, particularly well-resourced ones, turn to private tutors, test-prep services, volunteerism and other opportunities to give their children a leg up in the ever-competitive college process. Dauber suggested that many parents are motivated by legitimate fears of downward mobility — that it is becoming increasingly hard for younger generations to move up economically in the way their parents did.

That pressure drove Julie Lythcott-Haims — a Palo Alto parent, author and former Stanford University dean of freshmen — to sell both her home in San Carlos and her mother's home on the East Coast to move to Palo Alto for the public school system. As the product of an elite university, she said she wanted the same educational outcomes for her children.

"I wanted my kids at the best schools, the best high school, so they could get to the best colleges. I had a very narrow definition in my mind," she said.

It wasn't until her son's high school workload started taking a toll on his well-being that Lythcott-Haims started to "widen my blinders and see there are plenty of schools and most of them don't demand a perfect, flawless, enriched-up-the-hill childhood."

College counselors say there is little they can do to change the minds of a student or parent set on a particular kind of college, even if it's out of reach for the student.

"It's pretty clear that the college admissions process needs an overhaul," said John Raftrey, who has run a college-advising business in Palo Alto for nine years. "It's spun out of control in a lot of different vectors. There's the 'I want my kid to get a job when he gets out of college' vector. There's the parent bragging-rights vector. There's (the) peer pressure from your fellow classmates (vector)."

Nonetheless, counselors said they try to educate families on the breadth of higher-education options in the U.S.

"I think the vast majority of parents in our community always have the best interest of their students in mind and would never fathom doing anything like what has been reported," said Mai Lien Nguyen, a college adviser at Menlo-Atherton High School. "There are times we do run up against the misguided belief that 'successful' lives can only be had through these colleges, or the ill-conceived desire for status markers or bragging rights; none of these is healthy or positive.

"We counsel students and parents to find balance and fulfillment in high school, to define success for themselves and not by the name of a school, and to be open to the full range of possible college pathways," she said.

Data shows college choice does not predict success later in life — "It is what you do in college, not where you go, that matters," Paul Franz, a research associate for Stanford school-reform group Challenge Success, wrote in a reaction piece to the admissions scandal.

Raftrey, who often points his clients to the Colleges That Change Lives website, which promotes lesser-known schools and a "philosophy of a student-centered college search," said getting families interested in those non-elite schools is still a "hard sell."

"Even though the data is there, people just don't believe it," he said.

For some, like Lythcott-Haims, author of "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success," the federal bribery case is an egregious example of overparenting — at the expense of the children involved.

"This is what's insidious about overparenting. We think we're helping our kids, but in fact we're signaling to our kid ... 'You're not capable of succeeding, so I have to help you every step of the way,'" she said. "That's incredibly damaging to a young mind."

The bribery scam has revived longstanding questions about the need to reform an admissions system that fuels narrow definitions of success and perpetuates socio-economic and racial inequities.

Lythcott-Haims said the onus is on colleges and universities to rethink a broken system. There are tangible steps they could take, she said: making SAT and ACT scores optional (which some colleges have already done), asking applicants directly whether they received any help on their essays and declining to participate in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which many condemn for contributing to problematic perceptions of hierarchies in the higher education system.

"I think the powers that be, the leaders in college admissions, need to sit down and figure out how to construct a system that isn't gameable and simultaneously to reinject a focus on ethics into the conversation about college admissions," Lythcott-Haims said. "While they may not have created the problem, they're best positioned to solve it."

Many parents say that, amidst all the pressures, there is strong demand for a more balanced approach to the college process and parenting in general.

Michelle Higgins, the parent of a Palo Alto High School junior, said that on the same day the news of the admissions scam broke, a large audience filled Paly's Performing Arts Center to hear from the author of "The Self-Driven Child: The science and sense of giving your kids more control over their lives."

Last week, Higgins attended a panel of students who had gone through the community college system.

"When the world is telling you ... which colleges you can feel proud about and there's this hierarchy ... we know that that's not true, but I think it's really hard for families or for kids," she said. "We can try — and I think a lot of us do try — to fight back against that."

Related content:

William 'Rick' Singer, head of college-admissions scam, had many Palo Alto connections

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Comments

8 people like this
Posted by Steven Nelson
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 15, 2019 at 11:10 am

Steven Nelson is a registered user.

There is a very good student portrait, in an article by Los Altos Town Crier education reporter Adanya Lusting, concerning the INSANE WORK LOAD that the MV-LA high school district allows its students to take.

5+ hours of homework 5 days a week. To boost your chances of "an elite" college acceptance letter. More than 25 hours a week of homework (5 AP classes).

Student Yalda Khodadad's story (she is a senior at Los Altos High School) is a must to read, if you worry about "too much, way too much" community, peer, and parent pressure on local 'good students'. MV-LA Board Policy - no AP limits.

Web Link

S. Nelson is a retired Trustee of the MVWSD (K-8)


10 people like this
Posted by @ Steven
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 15, 2019 at 12:58 pm

No one is forcing Yalda Khodadad to take that many AP classes. The district doesn't recommend it. You are saying they should prohibit kids from taking more than a certain number? Just what is that magic number? Taking three might be a total breeze for Yalda, but much too much for John. So where do you draw the line?

One thing I like about the district is that they allow for a LOT of choice. Want to take an AP class? Go ahead, there are no restrictions. No one is telling minorities not to take these classes.

So some students make bad decisions. Better for them to do so in high school than in college. Some do so based on parental pressure. That's a shame but really hard to fix...


14 people like this
Posted by Look locally for the Stressed Outs
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 15, 2019 at 2:28 pm

I know some perpetually stressed out and miserable "Great School" grads. They are living and working right next to the kids of days gone by, now adults who took a less stressful path in school. Basically ending up in the same place as them in the end.
I truly think the less pressured kids turn out to be the most balanced adults. Depending on the individual, there is no best school, only more expensive ones.

My Stanford grad coworker hears me tell stories about the slacker days in my youth and has said more than once "Ya know, I wish I would have done that"
I've got fantastic memories of a fun and mostly free-wheeling youth and he gets to tell people that he went to Stanford. Given the choice I'll take the former.


6 people like this
Posted by vkmo
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 16, 2019 at 9:25 pm

Now we know that some of the major college staff corruptly accepts bribes to admit students with lower grades. But it is really hard for these students to succeed in tough courses of these institutions, and college grades do matter. There doesn't seem to be corruption in assigning grades. Students with lower educational standards will not be able to slide into and succeed in tough courses of these important colleges. And even in easier courses, their performance will be below standard.


3 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2019 at 8:51 pm

@vkmo
What may happen is what the Walmart heiress did: she paid her roommate about 60k for 3 years of doing her schoolwork. At USC, I believe. I think the roommate tired of this and exposed it and is writing a book about it. I think the Walmart heiress bribed her way in with a big money donation to the school.
There are easy classes at Harvard. Articles about this periodically -


1 person likes this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2019 at 8:52 pm

See 2012 Harvard cheating scandal in Wikipedia, for example.


Like this comment
Posted by Steven Nelson
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 18, 2019 at 1:03 pm

Steven Nelson is a registered user.

It might be good for MV-LA high school district to research their own student outcomes. 4-year college entrance. They have the #AP classes for each student, over the last 5 years. They have the Much More Important AP Test result #, 1-5. For most colleges, of higher entrance difficulty, only a 5 matters for advanced placement. (and that, as at Stanford, only in Math, and at Harvard next year, in nothing!)

It seems a three input variable problem - AP courses #, AP Test results #, AP course grades #. Which of the three, has any correlation to say - Stanford, Harvard, UC Berkeley, UCLA (Caltech, MIT, Carnage Mellon, whatever your fave consortium) acceptance?

The Board of the HS District can set the Public Policy to restrict AP class load (I'd say 3/year, based on my own MVHS-Stanford grad / Economics, departmental honors and academic distinction). HS students can enroll in more college courses at Foothill.

Too many AP classes - deny regular courses! That was the situation over at Los Altos HS a few years ago (think it was fixed - for Physics). AND at jr. hi (Los Altos) the problem's grown downward - no regular math track next year, even against the express input, the unanimous professional advice of the math teaching staff!
Web Link


3 people like this
Posted by mom
a resident of Waverly Park
on Mar 18, 2019 at 2:53 pm

Nobody is telling kids to load up on AP classes, but it is common. Kids vary greatly in their ability to handle the load. The thing to remember about AP courses is that colleges are not obligated to give AP credit and may want students to take their version of the same course.

The biggest problems that I saw as a MVHS parent were:

1. There are regular classes and AP classes and not much in between. Lots of kids don't want to be in "regular" classes with kids who don't care about school. Maybe there should be more honors classes for kids who want a more academic class but not college-level work.

2. High school, especially in the Bay Area, is ALL about college prep. IMO it was a huge mistake to do away with classes like wood shop, auto mechanics, home ec, and other non-academic classes. It seems kids are made to feel that college is the only route to success. Now we have this concept of "adulting" for kids who think cooking dinner and sewing on a button is an achievement. LAHS has an auto repair and culinary arts program that I suppose MVHS kids could access if they want to drive over there. Freestyle is a step in the right direction of more choice for different learning styles and interests.

We got sucked in to the "college coach" thing because it sounded like college apps are a whole different game from when we were that age. We paid a couple thousand to a "coach" who told our child that everything about his essay needed to be changed, and encouraged him to apply to East Coast schools. Our kids ended up at in-state schools that they wanted to attend and had good programs in their major, and they received excellent educations.

I feel so bad for the kids whose parents got caught up in this scam. Can you imagine how that must feel, to know that your own parents think you're not good enough that they had to pay someone to cheat on your SAT exam and get accepted?! My children would never speak to me again if I'd done that.


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