Thoughts on College Admissions – The Process, The Scandal, and The Academy’s Approach

Associate Head of School and Director of College Counseling Neale Gay has worked with Academy students for many years as both a teacher and a College Counselor. He has great insights into the process, the system, the scandal, and the importance of helping young people find the right fit as they continue their education. He was recently quoted in a New York Times article on the subject, and an essay he penned on the topic was published as a “My Turn” column in the April 1 issue of the Recorder (Greenfield, MA). The text of the essay follows:

Reflections on the College Admissions Scandal

The news that broke recently involving William Singer and his company, Edge College & Career Network, did not sober me to a reality of which I was unaware.

Creating a false narrative with imaginary achievements, mythical athletic prowess, and sainted selflessness, coupled with well placed bribes is merely this decade’s version of the quid pro quo that helped the scions of industry and Wall Street from previous generations get ahead in college and beyond.

That version of the old boys’ club has seen its sun set only to be replaced with something equally sinister: those who “have” still get ahead simply because they were born into privilege, but now they use third parties to do their dirty work.

What Singer promised, and what those with substantial means bought from his company, is part of a disease that grips many families nationally. It trickles down to the middle class in ways both unhealthy and self-perpetuating. There is a belief that highly selective liberal arts colleges, those with low acceptance rates driven lower by both the ease with which students can now apply to college and by an increasing number of schools that are accepting a substantial percentage of their freshman class through early decision agreements, are the only colleges acceptable for the children of the educated and white middle class.

There’s a degree of pride behind this belief on the part of parents. A game I play when I drive long distances involves counting the number of cars with prominently placed decals adorning rear windows that advertise colleges. It passes the time for me, and it also illustrates the larger problem: the brand name is an essential part of the college search for families.

More important though, is the academic fit and the social fit for a student. Academically, students should find a school that has opportunities that are exciting. These could be anything from the standard curriculum for incoming freshman to research opportunities outside of the classroom, from individual professors to study abroad availability. Socially, students should find a school where they will be happy with opportunities on campus to meet people, such as clubs to join and special living arrangements to meet their needs.

If a student doesn’t have anything to be excited about other than the name of the school in which they’re enrolled, that student might become resentful, anxious, and unhappy. Always striving for the next rung is no way to live a meaningful life.

Many students follow a kind of “cursus honorum” – the steps of advancement required for ancient Rome’s elite – updated for the modern world. It starts early and without their knowledge. Their parents pick pre-schools and activities advertised as exceptional. They start training for athletics at a young age, and they begin competing early and they do so often. By the time they get to high school, they select their courses with an eye to achieving a high grade and what that means for college admissions. The hard work a student completes in high school is supposed to be its own reward; a student who becomes fluent in French will benefit in innumerable ways, the least of which is whether that fluency is impressive to college admissions counselors.

It is difficult being a young person today. They are anxious about their futures because of the very real challenges they read and hear about, and they’re made more anxious by the expectations the adults in their lives have for them.

According to a 2017 American College Health Association survey of 63,000 students at 92 schools, 61 percent of college students surveyed said they felt “overwhelming anxiety” during the previous academic year. At the same time this has happened, hospital admissions for teenage suicide have doubled over the last decade. It’s time for all of us to step back, take a few deep breaths, and take time to consider the purpose and value of an education. We need to encourage our young people in their pursuit of knowledge and mastery for its own sake. We need to do so because they represent our future.