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College Admissions: It's More About Prestige, Ego and Bragging Rights than Student Success

USCThe widely reported college admissions scandal has become a hot topic among parents of college-bound students. The dishonesty that prevailed among members of the highest echelons of society – business executives, actors, law firm partners, doctors – is staggering. It feeds the narrative that wealthy people in the United States have an unfair advantage in gaining their children’s admission to top colleges and universities. This, in turn, adds to the political polarization that prevails today and the class warfare narrative that sadly informs some modern day politicians and commentators.

Most people with whom I’ve discussed the matter view the scandal with disgust. They are taken aback by the dishonesty, lack of ethics, and the influence of money and power in a system that is supposed to be merit-based. A common refrain is a lament of many students’ and parents’ focus on college rankings and a small subset of elite schools, which can have an unhealthy impact on the experience of high school students throughout the already stressful college admissions process. I believe the scandal illuminates the reality that in a competitive community such as Scarsdale, admission to college causes families to lose perspective. Most people would not cheat or buy their way to their kids’ acceptance to a top school. Still, the lengths to which some will go are concerning. Many families spend thousands and thousands of dollars on test prep for the ACT or SAT; kids are encouraged to engage in year-round athletics; they assume burdensome academic schedules; they suffer sleep deprivation; and they otherwise engage in excessive behaviors over multi-year periods in response to the pressure to get into their dream school. While I’d like to think my wife and I have completely avoided these behaviors with our own kids, that would be an overstatement.

There are other factors at play insofar as parents are concerned. People are influenced by what they hear at community events, on the sidelines at school athletic contests and at cocktail parties. Before one knows it, which college your child is attending becomes a barometer of how good a parent you’ve been. Similarly, students succumb to the buzz in class, in the hallways and at practices and their sense of self-worth is tied up in the name of a college.

In short, in affluent communities it can seem like everyone is gunning for admission to a top school. We might recognize deep down that college is not really about a prize or status, but then emotions, competitiveness and insecurity create a reflexive desire for admission to the most selective school. There’s no question that most of us want the best for ourselves and our children. So, the logic goes, college selectivity must be tied to quality.

But that’s where the logic, to some extent, ends. As I wrote in an earlier column for Scarsdale10583.com, studies repeatedly show that the greatest early determinant of career success for most students from upper middle class and wealthy families – measured by lifetime income – are the academic credentials of the student applying to college, and not the identity of the college. In other words, all things being equal, take two highly motivated students with identical grades and identical standardized test scores, send one to an elite college and one to a middle-of-the road state school, and the data consistently shows that their lifetime earnings will be roughly equivalent. (Minority students and students from less wealthy families do tend to earn more than their peers if they attend an elite college, with the most common explanation given that the institutions have broader professional networks that help facilitate early career advancement.)

For most of us in Scarsdale, the reality is that whatever motivates the college application rat race to get into the best school possible, it’s more about prestige, ego and bragging rights, and not about the student’s future career prospects. As we ponder the lessons of the college admissions scandal, we’d be well served to re-evaluate our priorities and recognize that when it comes to helping our children get into an elite school, it’s as much about our own status as it is our children’s future success.

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