For local parents, high school students and college counselors, news this week of a multimillion-dollar college admissions bribery scandal that involved both Palo Alto area parents and hundreds of thousands of dollars was shocking — but not wholly unexpected, they said.
Despite efforts by Palo Alto Unified and other 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."