For thousands of Minnesota high school students, the months spent agonizing over essays, preparing for tests and working with school counselors and college coaches will culminate in the next two weeks, when some of the country’s most selective colleges will reveal their admission decisions.
But this year, the anxiety that traditionally shadows students and their families in March includes a dose of outrage.
Last week, the federal government accused dozens of wealthy parents of spending millions of dollars on bribes and test cheating schemes to buy their children’s way into some of the nation’s most elite universities.
For students and families without the same level of wealth and power — or the inclination to break the law — the federal indictments have prompted anger, frustration and disbelief.
“We always have said we’re the kind of country where if you work hard and play by the rules you can get ahead, and the pathway to a better life is a higher education,” said Jim McCorkell, the CEO and founder of College Possible, a Minnesota-based national nonprofit that helps low-income students prepare for and apply to college. “But when we see it stacked so against the people who most need a fair shot, it is heartbreaking.”
The admissions scandal, which involves Hollywood stars, successful business people and top coaches, revealed scams ranging from altered test scores to falsified records that claimed non-athletes as Division I recruits. It’s already resulted in the firings or suspensions of coaches at Stanford University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California, who allegedly accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.
In Minnesota, the news is prompting conversations among admissions officials at the state’s most selective colleges.
Jeff Allen, vice president for admissions and financial aid at Macalester College in St. Paul, said admissions staff at most higher education institutions in Minnesota are members of a national organization of admissions counselors and abide by a code of ethics and professional practices — a code he said was clearly violated by the people ensnared in the admissions scandal.
He said the case makes clear something he and others in the admissions world think about frequently: Not all students have access to the same kinds of resources, both financially and in terms of the classes and counseling they receive at their school. Those factors should be considered when a college is deciding whether to admit a student, Allen said.
“If anything, it’s a good reminder to all of us who work in admissions that we really are talent seekers, not necessarily gatekeepers,” he said. “We need to remind ourselves that talent is everywhere and opportunity is not.”
At Carleton College, Paul Thiboutot, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid, said admissions staff hear from their share of “overinvolved” parents — and have for decades. Getting into Carleton has become increasingly difficult in recent years, as the number of applications has increased. The Northfield college now accepts just 20 percent of the students who apply, putting it among the most selective institutions in the country. (The competition at some top schools is even more extreme; Harvard and Stanford universities now accept just 5 percent of applicants.)
But Thiboutot said he believes the vast majority of applicants to Carleton and other top schools, along with their families, don’t resort to extreme or illegal measures to secure admission.
“There’s no question that there’s a segment of our population that perhaps manipulates things unbeknown to admissions officers, but it’s a very small percentage,” he said.
Still, the scandal has left some parents and students fuming, wondering how much wider the scheme may have reached.
With two sons in college and a third set to graduate high school this year, Amy Klaiman, of Medina, is a veteran of the admissions process. She said all of her children worked hard to earn top grades and test scores, and set their hopes high. She hired a private college counselor to help guide the family through the process and expected both of her sons would earn acceptance to several of the top-tier schools where they applied. Both ended up at well-regarded institutions — the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Maryland — but they also got plenty of rejections.
One that particularly stings in the wake of the admissions scandal: one son’s rejection from the University of Southern California, his top pick. (That’s the university at which television actress Lori Loughlin allegedly paid $500,000 in bribes to ensure her daughters’ admission.)
“I’m kind of furious,” Klaiman said. “I think it’s terrible.”
For many families, especially those with children (or parents) set on acceptance to selective universities, the application process has become all-consuming. Jay Benanav, founder of College Inside Track, a St. Paul-based college consulting firm, said some families feel pressure to make the right decision, given the soaring cost of higher education. Others want to ensure their children are on a path to a successful life — and sometimes think they need a big-name university to make that happen.
Those who enlist the help of private college counseling services often spend around $5,000 on packages that can stretch over multiple years of high school. He likened the service to that of a Realtor, providing assistance and guidance in a complex process.
Benanav noted that just a few decades ago, a student could work part time at a minimum-wage job and earn enough to pay their tuition at the University of Minnesota — a school that is comparatively far more affordable than some private colleges. Today, a student would have to work a full-time job — and then some — to pay their way through school.
“In my day, if you made the wrong economic decision, it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Today, if you pick the wrong school, the wrong economic decision, it could be financially devastating.”
That’s particularly true for low-income students, who often have to sort through the admissions process without access to private tutors or counselors, or even to the kinds of classes and extracurricular programs that fill other students’ résumés.
Monica Paniagua, a St. Paul Central High graduate who earned a degree two years ago from Lawrence University, now serves as a counselor for College Possible, the same organization that helped her prepare for college. She said the news about the admissions scandal has been disappointing, especially when she thinks about students like herself, who are often the first in their family to attend college and may already feel like the system is stacked against them.
But she’s hopeful all the discussion will make more people aware of the inequities in higher education.
“I hope the scandal just brings some attention to the challenges that students face just in trying to improve their lives,” she said.