Guest Opinion: Lessons parents should learn from the college-admissions scandal | News | Palo Alto Online |


Guest Opinion: Lessons parents should learn from the college-admissions scandal

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Last week's college-admissions scandal can teach parents one of two lessons: create your own broad definition of success and parent your kids out of hope and conviction, or default to our culture's narrow definition of success and act out of fear and anxiety.

What happens when the most resourced, educated parents give in to fear and anxiety and focus on narrow markers of "success" -- grades, test scores, resume-building accomplishments, and college admissions?

Jim Lobdell
• They discount research that dispels myths about the importance of attending prestigious universities.

• They send messages to their kids -- sometimes subtle, sometimes direct -- about the make-or-break nature of academic and extracurricular performance. Kids internalize that "good" won't cut it, and many feel forced to cheat their way to the top.

• They allow their kids to participate in the academic and extracurricular arms race, even as the load means compromising sleep, mental health, and overall well-being.

• They mortgage their kids' adolescence with a schedule most adults couldn't maintain, at a time when teenagers should be forming their own identity. It's a debt that will eventually come due, often in the form of a quarter- or mid-life crisis.

• They and staff of well-paid tutors, coaches and counselors helicopter to monitor progress and snowplow to remove obstacles, undermining their kids' agency and resilience along the way.

• They see parenting as a zero-sum competitive sport, and the college bumper sticker on their car as the scoreboard.

• And in the extreme, they act in outrageously fraudulent ways to leave nothing to chance.

The irony is that none of this fosters the most important attributes for long-term success in our increasingly dynamic world -- creativity, resilience, problem-solving, collaboration, flexible-thinking, empathy, adaptability, to name a few. And it's taking a devastating toll on kids' development and well-being, not to mention hindering the path to authentic success. Many factors contribute to this dynamic, but a big part is on parents for focusing too much on things that matter little (achievement metrics), and too little on the things that matter most (character traits).

(What all this means for under-resourced students, whose families can't play the game on this wildly uneven field, is the bigger, more damning story told here and here.)

Scandals aside, this dynamic was widely evident in 2007 when I co-founded Challenge Success, a research-based, nonprofit out of the Stanford School of Education that champions a broad definition of success and partners with families and schools to promote student well-being and engagement with learning. In subsequent years, thousands of well-intentioned, often affluent and educated parents have come to Challenge Success events fighting an internal battle, knowing in their gut that the treadmill to superficial success is not healthy or sustainable, but fearful that if they step off it, their children will fall behind.

As an antidote, Challenge Success developed parent education curriculum centered on commonsense practices that have become, sadly, all too uncommon. We challenge parents to:

• Define success on your family's terms, in alignment with your values, and in accordance with who your kids are.

• Take the long view of success, measured over a lifetime and not at the end of a semester.

• Resist parent peer pressure, be informed, and trust your gut.

• Debunk college myths and focus on post-secondary fit, not a brand name.

When you define success on your family's terms, you reposition your stance as a parent -- with an eye to the child before you, to their needs and interests, and to your values and hopes for what they can bring to the world as an adult.

Getting off the treadmill isn't easy. Doing it, in fact, is an act of courage and a leap of faith. But there's a preponderance of evidence that should encourage parents to take that step.

More on the national admissions bribery scam:

• Listen to the March 15 episode of "Behind the Headlines," where Palo Alto college adviser John Raftrey discusses the implications of the nationwide admissions bribery scandal, now available on our YouTube channel and podcast.

Guest Opinion: Making the college-admissions system more equitable

Video: Unpacking the college-admissions scandal

Feds: Parents paid tens of thousands to game the admissions system

William 'Rick' Singer, head of college-admissions scam, had many Palo Alto connections

Pressure over college admissions 'out of control'

Stanford students file class action lawsuit in admissions scandal

Ex-global equity firm exec, a grad of Gunn High, implicated in admissions scam

Editorial: The audacity of privilege

$75K for a fake ACT score? Students say cheating happens without the big bucks

In response to college-admissions scandal, Stanford to probe policies, current athletic recruits

Palo Alto couple faces money-laundering charge in college-admissions scam

Following college-admissions indictments, feds investigate whether Stanford was lax in complying with financial-aid laws


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Jim Lobdell co-founded Stanford-based Challenge Success in 2007 with Denise Pope and Madeline Levine. He is currently a venture partner at Reach Capital, an edtech social-impact venture fund, and lives in Portola Valley.

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10 people like this
Posted by Reviewer
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 19, 2019 at 11:49 am

Thank you for posting this article.

The one topic missing is that the adults in the picture whether they are parents or caregivers is that those who participate in using their children as their societal markers for success have emotional abused their children. The trauma that has been committed will have life long implications for their children if they do not get the psychological therapy needed to analyze and dissolve the years of the adult’s fear based and ignorant practices.

Save the Children is key. Save Adults from themselves!

18 people like this
Posted by A Lesson Learned
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 19, 2019 at 1:20 pm

Foothill Community College is good enough as it offer a 2-year transfer program to many quality colleges & universities. Saves money as well.

4 years at an overpriced university are for the vain.

My son went to Foothill, then to Whitman & then to University of Washington Dental School.

He has already out-shined the likes of the Macy/Huffman & Loughlan good for nothings.

4 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Mar 19, 2019 at 2:30 pm

pearl is a registered user.

A helpful insight into this topic can be found in this book:

Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be - An Antidote To The College Admissions Mania, by Frank Bruni.

Like this comment
Posted by Priscilla
a resident of another community
on Mar 21, 2019 at 8:43 am

I believe this was a mistake on the part of the parents involved but we all make mistakes raising our kids. Most of us will do whatever we can to help our kids. I'm not in a position to pay anyone to have helped get my kids into a college but no one ever knows what they would actually do if given the opportunity. Yes, I do believe the parents should be fined and the kids not be able to attend the college unless they can actually pass the admittance exams to qualify. Do I think the parents should lose their jobs, NO! The jobs of these people don't only affect them, it affects the people they work with and the consumers that watch the shows. I for one do not want the fired from their jobs. My opinion.

7 people like this
Posted by A Little Leage Parent
a resident of another community
on Mar 21, 2019 at 9:12 am

This kind of stuff happens on all levels involving children. No big surprise it occured on the college level.

One of the parents on my son's Little League team allegedly bribed the coach with some contractor's (construction) leads to ensure that his son could be the starting pitcher.

Things got bad after the team lost its first three games due to this kid giving up about 4-5 runs per inning.

The parents in the stands were irate & the youngster was booed every inning he stepped on the mound by the parents of his own teamates!

Nevertheless, he still continued to pitch & the coach fell under suspicion.

At a post-game pizza gathering, the issue was addressed by an angry father whose son was clearly a superlative pitcher for a 9 year-old. The coach became flustered when the accusations were brought up & other parents joined in the verbal fray. Soon a joint argument ensued & the manager of the pizza place had to intervene.

The father suspected of bribing the coach was also called out & he challenged one of the accusers to a fight in the parking lot. The mothers were also yelling at his wife who became quite beligerant herself by using the F-word towards them.

The children were obviously aware of this ongoing verbal altercation but somewhat accustomed to it having experienced the mass outrage during the actual games & they went on enjoying their pizza & soft drinks.

The pitcher in question started crying & told his father (the suspected briber) that he wanted to quit the team or maybe play right field. And this is where the truth came out...

The father became angry & told his son that he went through great efforts to ensure that he have a high-profile position on the team & BOOM!

The coach was dismissed & another parent offered to take over. His son was destined to be a benchwarmer so there were no suspicions of any favoritism.

The college admissions scandal is no different from Little League...just parents behaving badly & doing anything possible so their kids can remain one step ahead of the others when it comes to false impressions

2 people like this
Posted by Bill Bucy
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 21, 2019 at 9:45 am

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

This isn't about bad parenting, societal pressures or a warped definition of success. It's about criminal behavior. People are charged with knowingly and willingly committing fraud and, in some cases, directly involving their children.

I doubt anyone would write off as a well-meaning "mistake" a bank robbery to finance a kid's education.

4 people like this
Posted by No equivocation
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 21, 2019 at 9:49 am

No - the actions taken were wrong and done by free will. Some of the actions are illegal. These should be prosecuted according to our laws. They are definitely unethical acts. The universities should punish cheating, lying, misrepresentation by applicants. As to employment: I don’t want to put my funds with an investment firm run by a crook. I don’t want to patronize the services of a cheater. I urge people not to enrch these people.

7 people like this
Posted by Learning-First Family
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 28, 2019 at 4:47 pm

Jim Lobdell,

I love Challenge Success, I think your ideas are insightful and fantastic. But I think you are missing the point here. Parents and children here want a good education. Every Californian has a right, under the state Constitution, to a free and fair public education.

I agree with all of your points, but you put the onus on parents to not "allow their kids to participate in the academic and extracurricular arms race” but the only game in town, as far as a free and fair public education, is an academic arms’ race. It’s like you’re putting the onus on a 17th century harem girl to be a feminist, when she has no freedom to do that. Sure she might be happier in another place, another time, but unless her circumstances change, your fantastic advice is just going to get her killed.

You are telling people what to do but not offering a realistic alternative to a souped up version of the factory/widget/Prussian model of education described so beautifully by Sir Ken Robinson and implemented to doggedly here. You are telling parents what (else) they need to do, yet parents have almost no power in the school-parent relationship by high school already, and no ability to set boundaries between school and home from the moment their children start school in the first place.

Telling kids not to spend so much time on homework is not helpful when they lack choices to BOTH get the education they want AND not have the constant stream of meaningless tasks foisted on them to get their educations from people who do not respect boundaries between school and home life. They face stress of NOT being able to get an education because of relentless failures, inability to finish work, inability to get the opportunities that meet their desires for their own learning, unhappiness from academic bullying, lack of accommodations for special needs, etc. If you think too much homework is unhealthy, don’t just tell kids tone-deaf things about choices they can’t really make, provide a high-quality educational opportunity that doesn’t require it. D-Tech in San Mateo does, and they are so oversubscribed, they have to hold a lottery every year.

I really laud you for what you have done in Creating Challenge success but you are failing to account for how large a part of the equation the school/school model itself plays in the problems . You can be academic about these things all you want, but until you have actual experience yourself with stepping out of the building, literally, you just cannot see all the assumptions you are making about school that diminish the value and impact of your advice, and especially, you cannot see all the things you are missing about school that contribute to the problems you want to solve.

Children’s independence, for example. The whole school model inculcates a system of dependence on external direction. It was designed to do that. Web Link
Even in project-based settings, there is still a strong habit of assuming a tabula rasa, that kids need to be taught to do everything. You simply cannot understand how pernicious this is until you take a child away from the "factory model" and support self-direction in education. Have you ever unschooled? (For long enough to deschool first?) If the answer is no, then I just really don’t see how you can understand just how hopeless it is to do what you say within the existing paradigm of education, especially here.

What I’m starting to see because of all this “expert” advice here is parents who are completely disconnecting from their kids en masse — falling all over themselves to claim they don’t know what their kids are doing, they don’t know where their kids are applying to colleges, their kids are independent ships that pass in the night and *they* aren’t helicopters, no, no, no. It’s like they (and their “expert” critics) don’t know the difference between separation and estrangement, because they don’t understand that their family closeness does not have to be sacrificed for education or independence if *school* gave them the option.

If you had a view from a very different world of education, in which students are more in charge of their learning, their time, their choices, you would see that, first of all, the far broader and more diverse educational paths students take lend themselves to more collaboration and less meaningless competition naturally. You would see that it’s possible for families to be partners, to be close, in ways that adults usually are in the world, but that (most) schools don't allow because it interferes with the traditional "widget production” methods (nod to Ken Robinson’s film). We shouldn’t be telling kids that the only way they can break away from the widget factory depends on estrangement from their families, yet that seems to start in late elementary school here. There are all kinds of negative downstream consequences to the child and to the society.

People who leave the traditional paradigm for an independent education often wonder whether they will be able to do enough for their child to get into a good college. But after awhile, they wonder whether any college will be good enough for a self-directed learner. The colleges just seem to continue the factory model, too, including Stanford. When Walter Isaacson (Steve Jobs biographer) published his book on Da Vinci, he pointed out to the former President of Stanford that one thing Jobs, Einstein, and Da Vinci had in common is that they could never have gone to Stanford, and they could never have been who they were if they had.

What have you done to change this at Stanford? You are at Stanford. You have great ideas about what’s wrong. And yet, you and other professors have failed to have any impact on how Stanford or most colleges, elite or not, educate (or qualify) students so that those who want autonomy and self-direction in learning, opportunities for creativity and a broad education, a lack of the “treadmill” and “academic arms race” as you call it, and a focus on learning first and a balanced life, could or would go there.

What have you done to create alternatives for students in Palo Alto? San Mateo has D-Tech. Los Altos/Mountain View has Freestyle Academy. Union City has Connecting Waters East Bay. Fremont has COIL. SJUSD has Homestudies and Learning Options. I’m not suggesting they’re perfect, but I am pointing out that other districts have made attempts where Palo Alto has nothing. Palo Alto could create another Homestudies, or an Ocean Grove-like option for its own students overnight. An option for students who want to learn and get the challenge, but who want off the treadmill. Stop telling people to do it, and start working to create a safe place for them to go. Do it now.

This extends to college. It’s almost cruel, having found that it’s possible to get a far better education, with more time and flexibility and a more balanced life off the treadmill, to then find that it’s even harder to find a college without getting back on. (Again, I’m not sure you can really appreciate this from the inside.)

If you cannot change the place you are to make it more the place you are telling others they should seek, including less focus on prestige, all the tsking and fingerwagging (and giving cover to judgmental stone throwing) at parents will do little to really improve things.

6 people like this
Posted by Learning-First Family
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 29, 2019 at 12:12 pm

I like the Christensen Institute newsletter:
"A key finding that helps explain why ...[privileged parents] may have committed admissions fraud is that a significant number of high school students choose college for its own sake with little consideration for what doors college will open or what they will do once enrolled. Simply put, many students’ “why” is to get into the best college for them. They are on a ladder with a singular focus on being and getting into the best."
Web Link

In contrast to that, when people decide to get a self-directed education (I'm not calling it "homeschooling" because people get the wrong idea about it having to take place outside of school), college admission becomes all about continuing the learning journey.

What a lot of families and students find is that the colleges they have to choose from, where they can continue to focus on learning and have learning communities with significant autonomy, is very, very small. Every discussion list I've been on has regular threads about where you can "homeschool' college (and they don't mean staying at home, they mean, continue with the level of autonomy and keeping learning first in a much richer/more vibrant learning environment). There is this real frustration that so many of us DID step off the treadmill for the sake of learning, only to find that there are few to no ways to continue that in college, and where there are, the programs get filled with students fresh off the treadmill themselves, eager to step onto the next one.

Like this comment
Posted by member1
a resident of another community
on Apr 3, 2019 at 10:43 am

member1 is a registered user.

Lessons learned: Now we know everything we suspected about many of these families is true. They will cheat and stomp your kids into the ground to walk past them and not look back.

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