I’ve been thinking a lot about the Varsity Blues college scam. I have two kids in college and it brings up interesting issues and concerns. Most of my friends have college aged or nearly college aged kids and the scam is certainly a hot bed of emotion for a lot of people.
The subject is so multi-faceted. I’ve heard both extreme criticism from some. Others have a level of understanding for the accused. While I’m no psychologist, I’ve been wondering about the psychology behind the need for people to get their undeserving kids into elite schools.
I think what it all boils down to is the need for belonging. We all need to feel as if we belong. We know when people feel shunned or turned away – whether by a particular person or organization, painful feelings ensue. As parents, we know how much it hurts to feel shut out of a friendship, social group or organization. In our deep love for our children, we often make the mistake of attempting to shelter our kids from disappointment. We have all lived long enough to know the sting of being left out so trying to save our kids feels natural. Sometimes we have to recognize how we feel but resist the temptation of fixing every boo boo which can be, I admit, sheer agony.
The college scam is not about education. It’s about belonging to an elite club. Think about how much energy we dedicate to joining the right organizations. We love to categorize ourselves. Whether it’s a fraternity/sorority, a team, a church, a country club, a philanthropic group, Skull and Bones Society, Gryffindor, Slytherine — it’s all the same. And we don’t just want to belong. Usually, we want some bragging rights too. We use the group to define ourselves for other people. Families involved in this scandal were looking to attach themselves to a prestigious university, not for the assumed high level of education their children stood to gain, but for the bragging rights of belonging to a glamorous group.
I think, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us agree that big time universities don’t necessarily offer a better education. I have the sincere privilege of working with high school students who largely come from financially challenged families. Many of my students attend community colleges and work hard to transfer to state schools. They don’t take this path because their test scores and grades are poor. They take this route because they are seeking affordability.
I’ve seen bright, engaged, motivated students who have a love of learning and go on to seek excellent educations through the community college system because they take advantage of office hours, ask for supplemental reading material, take on extra credit challenges, work long hours at internships all while working jobs to pay their tuitions. Conversely, we all know folks who attended top schools who spent lots of time partying, graduated with gentlemen’s C’s and generally cheated themselves out of the full, meaningful education available to them.
Families involved in cheating and bribery were not looking for a superior education for their kids. They were looking for what they put value on – superior bragging rights. They were looking to belong to a group they would ordinarily be excluded from and they were willing to commit crimes to save their kids from the reality that their talents were not the right fit for those schools.
The sad irony, of course, is that had these kids been left to attend schools appropriate for them, they would have likely thrived. When it all sifts out, these people value ego over education and there in lies the real problem.