Being the mom of two little ones I must admit writing this monthly column, while being something I thoroughly enjoy, often ends up getting done last minute.  Month after month I find myself racking my brain for something to write about two days before I need to submit.  Silver lining time: earlier this week news broke of the college admissions cheating scandal and suddenly my procrastination has paid off!  The largest story on college admissions in years drops and provides a ready-made topic!

I’m not going to rehash the details of the incident, feel free to Google it if you need a refresher, but the quick summary is this: college coaches, parents, and a tutoring business owner conspired to lie some rich kids into highly prestigious universities.

Yikes.  This is a really bad look for an industry already reviled by many.  Every professional organization with ties to this business, some colleges, and a mountain of admissions professionals rushed to release statements about how this is a flash in the pan; a terrible incident that does not reflect on the majority of professionals in these roles.  

Sign Up for E-News

While the denouncements and shamings were publicly happening I was also watching the private conversations of admissions professionals on a closed Facebook group.  Sure, there was chastising there as well but I’d say two-thirds of the comments took a much more disheartening turn: those who were completely unsurprised that something like this was coming to light.

How can we as an industry be up in arms about this brazen disregard of ethics and laws while also privately admitting that a story like this was inevitable in the environment we’ve all helped create around college admissions?  I’m sad to say I’m not surprised to hear about this either and I bet for these few dozen who were indicted this week there are hundreds more sticking their heads in the sand waiting for this to blow over.  

To be fair, I am by no means an expert on this topic.  I’ve been around college admissions for a good while but I don’t pretend to be a industry leader.  I’m sure there are those who would vehemently disagree with me, but I’ve got to call it like I see it.  Let’s be real about the buildings that have been purchased in return for guarantees of acceptance, the rising percentage of need-aware schools, and dozens of other pay-to-play practices in college admissions.  I’ve heard too many horror stories around people pretending to do what I do who while instead accepting insane fees for promises from schools.  How is any of that so far removed from what we’re reading about today?  In these few days since the original story broke I’ve already seen follow-up stories on larger trends of abuse linking back to exactly this atmosphere we all already know exists.

Now, as I hop down from my soap box, I realize that this column usually contains some admissions advice and I have yet to offer any.  Let me rectify that.  For those of you approaching the college process reading a story like this could be very scary.  How can you be sure the professionals you’re working with are on the up-and-up?  How can your child prevail against a rigged system?

To tackle the first question, when hiring a tutor, coach, counselor, or financial advisor please be sure to thoroughly check their credentials.  Organizations exist on the national and regional level to uphold ethical standards for school counselors, tutors, and admissions consultants.  If you begin work with a professional and see some red flags please report it to these organizations and they can give you guidance on recourse.

Talk thoroughly with these professionals about what their services will include before you start.  What are you getting for your money?  What parts of the process are/are not included.  If paying on an hourly basis, how many hours do they anticipate using?  For example, sometimes a higher hourly rate reflects a more condensed schedule and may in fact save money and time.

I wish I had some simple advice to respond to fears around unethical practices on the college side.  The fact is practices that most would consider biased are woven into the nature of the process itself.  To this end the best advice I can give is to leave your options open and have a plan A, B, C, and D.  Unless you’re willing to break the law there are no guarantees regardless of how many AP’s you took or how high your SAT score is.  As long as you’ve done your research on the front end you will have many options to choose from when the dust settles.  Without getting too philosophical, try to have faith that you’ll end up with the college intended for you.  

I truly hope this news story will help start a national conversation about not only the illegal practices here but also some legal ones that need to change.  We all need to walk the walk and stop making college admissions about exclusivity and start creating a space where students can truly find their best fit that will allow them to be successful and (dare I say it?) happy.