The title above is a paraphrase of Dr. Suniya Luthar's often quoted line—I can therefore I must—that she used during her visit to Brentwood. While her context was a reminder to parents and teachers that there are times when our students need to say no (or we need to say no on their behalf), I am using this sentiment in a different context—the college admissions scandal that came to light earlier this week. Specifically, I want to address privilege and the inherent responsibility that goes with it.
Privilege is easy to see when assessing another's advantages—status, gender, money, sexual orientation, race. Ironically, it is much more elusive when it comes to identifying our own privilege. In part, this is due to ambition and our forward-looking natures. That is, when we choose to send our children to a school like Brentwood we are committing to what we believe is best for them as children, future adults, and human beings. Just as we want the best for them they also want the best for themselves. And they work for it. Whether it is learning to work hard and through difficult tasks, or learning how to repair a friendship after it has been damaged. The list is long, and each challenge brings an opportunity to learn and grow. Unfortunately, the reverse is equally true, each challenge presents the opportunity to deflect and regress.
The recent headlines featuring the behavior of a private college counselor and his clients—College Admissions Process—represents a crystal-clear example of privilege run amok. These parents, just because they could, did. What they did, however, was unfair and dismissive of all the qualified students applying to these schools who either did not have this privilege, or did have it but knew better than to exercise it. I am pained and angered when I imagine the qualified students whose spots never materialized, as others stepped ahead of them through a "side door." And the use of this "door" is something that also comes with believing that either the system is not good enough or one is above the system. In either case, the conclusion is that a private college counselor is a necessity. Our school, and others like it, employ a team of talented and knowledgeable counselors who offer a level of advice and counsel not available to most students in this country. Our counselors work as a team, meaning that they have the wisdom and breadth of experience that far exceeds that of one individual. On top of this, the colleges talk to us directly about our students' applications while they do not speak to private counselors. They call us when they have follow up questions. And through this process they get to know us as a school, our students, and our integrity as we support all of our students in making the best match. In my mind, this is another case of "Just because you can doesn't mean you should."
While we all love our children, and want the very best for them, we should never, ever rob them of the opportunity to face challenges and grow themselves as human beings. That is, to slightly paraphrase Dr. Luthar, Just because we can help our kids skirt rather than face challenges, does not mean that we should. In fact, the exact opposite. We should encourage them to face the challenges and support them in their efforts, no matter the outcome. This is especially relevant when it comes to applying to and getting into college. There is a reason the highly selective colleges have such high academic requirements—because they are geared to students who revel in that level of intellectual challenge. Therefore, if someone sneaks into one of these colleges that is not a match with who they are as a learner and person, it translates into an unfulfilling four years, at a minimum.
Believe it or not, college admissions offices know what they are doing and are, in my experience, pretty darn good at accepting the students who are a natural match for their schools and programs. And yes, much of the pressure stems from an overabundance of students that fit their criteria. In this vein, do not sell your children short. If they love an intellectual environment and still do not get into a highly selective college, trust them to find or create this environment at whatever college they choose to attend. Frequently too much emphasis is placed on where one goes to college, yet the most important factor, by far, is not where your child goes to college but how engaged she or he is with their college experience:
In our reading of the research on student outcomes—learning, financial, and otherwise—this theme arises: the students who benefit the most from college are those who are most engaged in their academics and campus communities, taking advantage of the opportunities and resources their particular institution provides. Engagement is the key.
—A "Fit" Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity
Challenge Success, Stanford University
If we learn nothing else from this recent crisis, it is this: crossing the line between ethical and unethical behavior while trying to protect our children, whether in the college process, in a challenging friend situation, or when your child experiences disappointment, in the long run, stunts their growth as human beings. Deeper still, we are our childrens' most important and vital role models, which means they are watching us all of the time, and even more intensely when we are wrestling with principled decisions. In short, the ends never justify the means when it comes to your integrity—if not for your sake, then for your child's.