Sadly, the most frequently heard reaction among local residents last week to the news that 33 parents across the nation, including six who call the Palo Alto area home, had bribed their children's way into college, was not shock or surprise.
Instead, it was the belief that these indictments were just the "tip of the iceberg."
That characterization reflects a pervasive feeling of parental insecurity over the ability for even the most highly qualified high school students to win admission to schools as "good" as the ones their parents attended. For too many high-powered, hard-driving, accomplished parents the possibility that their children might not be accepted by a prestigious university threatens to shatter their dreams and expectations, denies them bragging rights and feels like a failure of parental responsibility.
It is a feeling that has led many families to engage expensive tutors, test-prep courses and private college advisers who help with everything from selection of good-fit schools to the writing of college application essays. This has become a major industry, especially in affluent, highly educated communities like those on the Midpeninsula, and the more families hear of others investing in these services the more pressure they feel to join the race to gain advantage.
And we now learn that this parental anxiety, combined with a sense of entitlement, has also fueled an enormous criminal enterprise, somehow rationalized as not that different from making large donations to a university or taking advantage of special admissions consideration for legacies, star athletes or other special talents.
Among just the 33 parents indicted last week, bribes totaling $25 million were allegedly paid to obtain college acceptances through a scheme that involved payments to bogus a nonprofit, inviting parents to have the audacity to deduct the bribes on income-tax returns.
The alleged mastermind of the scheme, Rick Singer, 58, of Newport Beach, pleaded guilty last week and has been cooperating with federal authorities for more than a year, assisting prosecutors obtain evidence against the parents who paid him to orchestrate college admissions for their kids.
As explained in court documents, Singer used his contacts developed over many years doing legitimate college consulting to create opportunities for what he coined "side door" admissions instead of the standard "front door" application process that most college applicants use or the "back door" strategy of making major donations to the desired university in exchange for admission.
In affluent areas like the Midpeninsula, Singer built a network of clients and referrals, some utilizing his perfectly legal advisory services, and others, more desperate and risk-taking, lured into Singer's pay-to-play scheme. He allegedly paid off college coaches to help grease admission for unqualified students, arranged for impostors to take SAT and ACT tests or planted and paid for test administrators to turn a blind eye toward cheating.
Apart from criminal prosecutions serving as a deterrent and scaring parents away from the "side door," the vulnerabilities in the admissions system are already under scrutiny by state and federal legislators, most of the colleges who admitted students under the bribery scheme and, we hope, by the College Board, ACT and high school administrators.
It is not encouraging that the ACT and College Board websites lack any statements about the scandal nor announce any investigations of their procedures, which prosecutors believe were compromised by Singer to obtain higher test scores for his clients. These testing services are profiting from the same parental anxiety and entitlement that led to the alleged criminal conduct.
They and high school administrators, whose facilities are used as test centers and whose staff often serve as test proctors, should be examining how to tighten up procedures to, among other things, rotate proctors and flag students who are not taking the tests in their home districts or have waivers allowing extra time. And colleges must investigate admission practices to protect against improper influence by individual employees, including athletic coaches.
But the more important problem is how parents define success for their children. The arms race aimed at gaining advantage over others in college admissions is fueling student stress and unhappiness, increased risk of depression and suicide and now exposes parents and their children to prosecution and public humiliation. With the wealthy and influential already having so many advantages, such parents need to recognize that it is their kids, not them, who must find their passions and pursue their own dreams for a happy and fulfilling life.
• 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.