College Admissions Cheating Scandal is a Symptom of a Deeper Problem

The college admissions cheating scandal, called Operation Varsity Blues, resulted in the indictment of 50 people, but this is just a symptom of a more far-reaching systemic problem. Parents, teachers, schools, and colleges have been perpetuating a myth that attending a top-tier university is the be-all and end-all for every child. Kids are conditioned to believe that there is one path to success: top grades in grade school leading to straight A’s in high school that results in acceptance into a top college, followed by procuring a great job and making a lot of money. Teens recite this mantra to me all the time, and it gives me the varsity blues. Many high school seniors are led to feel like a failure if they aren’t accepted into an elite school. A whole cottage industry of college prep has sprung up around this concept, with specialized tutoring, camps, publications, consultants, and ACT/SAT prep classes. According to research, this Ivy League mythology is just that, a myth.

My most read blog in the past eight years was entitled: Does it really matter where you go to college; you might be surprised. It received over 450,000 hits in the first week, and I realized I had hit a nerve. Kids as young as 13 tell me how stressed out they are about college and figuring out their career path. Childhood has been reduced to a race for straight A’s, padded college resumes, getting kids on the top travel club sports teams, winning youth sports national championships, popularity, and entry to elite universities. Parenting has become focused on giving your kids an edge, making it nearly impossible to not mold, micromanage, and motivate your child to stay on a course that you set for them. Or in the case of 33 affluent parents, to cheat for them. It’s interesting that no kids have been charged in the college admissions scandal because they weren’t aware of their parent’s illegal actions in their behalf. It was their straitjacket parents who were at fault.

We need to focus young people on a different model. Going to a prestigious college doesn’t make you successful; you must do that for yourself. It’s not where you go to college that counts, it’s how you go to college and why you go. What really matters are how well you use the university you go to and what you demand of it. We are setting kids up to be miserable adults. Being driven by being accepted into an elite college turns into a pursuit of a prestigious job and getting rich. None of those things in and of themselves is wrong. But people driven by these externals end up less happy and fulfilled than those motivated by things like finding a purposeful career and making a difference.

This cultural push for top grades, top youth sports teams, acceptance into elite colleges, being rich and famous, and being special and the best is destructive to children’s well-being. We no longer live by the maxim of “Keeping up with the Jones’s” like parents did in the 1950’s. Today it’s about “Keeping up with the Jones’s children”. If you see your neighbor’s kid taking a Kumon class, getting coaching by a professional baseball player, attending three cheer camps this summer, or taking ACT prep tutoring, the pressure is on to follow suit or your child will fall behind.

You can’t measure a high school student by their GPA and test scores, nor can you evaluate a college grad by what school they attended or their grades. What is harder to measure but far more important is a young adult’s level of grit, engagement, optimism, integrity, people skills, street smarts, stamina, and determination. I have asked hundreds of successful business owners around the world what qualities they look for when hiring young adults, and those are the traits they look for most. No CEO has ever said they care about what college the applicant attended nor their grades.

If developing these qualities is our intention for people entering college, then we need to shift our focus starting in childhood. The recent college admissions scandal should serve as a wakeup call to all of us to reaffirm what is really important.

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