Opinion | College admission scandal: Don’t be blinded by ‘elite’ schools

While most families don’t cheat, many do feel pressure to get their kids into the “right” school. But what if the “right” school isn’t the one at the top of all the lists?

Editor’s note: 50 people have been indicted in a college admissions scandal, which involves allegations wealthy families cheated to get their children into prestigious universities by offering bribes or having others take admissions tests for their children. What’s being called the biggest college admissions scandal in U.S. history is a stark reminder of the pressure some families put on getting their sons and daughters into the “right” college. In 2017, Patrick O’Connor, associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, wrote in Bridge about how the right college isn’t always the college ranked highest by various guides. In light of the scandal, Bridge is republishing O’Connor’s column.

Patrick O’Connor is associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills.

Parents of college-bound students, I get it. You want your child to have a good college experience — actually, you want them to have a great college experience. And with all the hype about choosing the right college, it’s natural you want some help making sense of the wide array of college choices. That’s why you bought the latest copy of the college rankings everyone talks about.

It’s also why you should burn it.

Don’t get me wrong — the hearts of the editors of college rankings are in the right place.  They think that if they collect data about how many students the college admits, how many books are in the college’s library, how many students return for their second year of college, and what the presidents of other colleges think of this college, they can create a list of colleges that will meet your child’s needs. Since we’re adults, we look at this fact-based approach towards college choice, see how it makes sense, and buy a copy.

The problem here is that this approach has nothing to do with your child. Unless you happen to live next door to the editors of a college rankings publication, the list you just paid for was put together by someone who knows absolutely nothing about your child — nothing about what they might want to major in, if they learn better in classes with lots of students or very few, if they want to study overseas, if they learn best by doing rather than talking, or if the idea of going to school in a major city just isn’t their idea of a good time.

Princeton is the top school in this year’s version of a college ranking. It has a great engineering program, and is located in the middle of a very cute little town. But why would that school even be on your list if you want to major in education (which they don’t offer) and spend your weekends with 80,000 fans rooting for the home team? Even if you wanted to major in engineering, is the experience you’d get at Michigan State (ranked #81) really all that different, especially if you want to live closer to home — and especially since you’d still be in small classes if you attend MSU’s Honors College, where you’d likely get a scholarship to go there?

If you still think a list of schools would help, you’re right — it’s just not this list you just bought. The key to building on that second framework involves an expert most parents overlook — your child. They may not know what they want in a college, and they may have no clue what they wanted to study. But there’s a really good chance they may have picked up some ideas about what they don’t want in a college, and that’s just as good a place to start.  

Throw in some parent visits to local college campuses, and you can start to get a feel for the way your child sees both college and themselves. Build on that with a weekly 20-minute meeting to make sure the nuts and bolts of applying are getting done, and you have the foundation for a solid plan.

Another source parents can use to help with the college process is your child’s school counselors. It’s certainly true that the average Michigan school counselor is swamped. As Bridge Magazine has reported, Michigan has the fourth highest student-to-counselor ratio in the nation, at 732 students per counselor.  At the same time, school counselors are in touch with more college admission offices than anyone else in your community, and most have had some training on how to help make sense of the college search.  You may only get one visit or two, but that can be enough to give you a framework to build a good search.

Of course, there’s also the Internet. A number of online resources can help students build a college list based on their interests.  Known as college guides or college search engines, these tools allow students to build lists based on different interests, save those lists, change them, and do in-depth research on a college, including admission requirements and scholarship opportunities. From College Board’s Big Future to Peterson’s, search engines can help reveal more options, and filter them based on your interests.

College can be a wonderful experience, but it means very different things to different people — that’s why there are so many different kinds. Using someone else’s values to build your college list is like using someone else’s tastes to decide the restaurant where you should dine. Unless what matters to them also matters to you, you’re likely to leave hungry for something else, and stuck with the check. There’s a better way.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

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Comments

Robyn A Tonkin
Fri, 03/15/2019 - 9:46am

As a general rule today, people view college as a trendy item to brag about that they are purchasing. Over the last 10 or 15 years, several times, people with no college degree themselves, have discussed at length with me the outlandishly expensive (often private) and outlandishly far away (usually out of state, half a nation away) place they are sending their kid. They get loans and the young adult student gets loans, to afford this education. Everyone indebts themself to buy an education that on the face of it often has dubious employment value, or could be obtained locally just as adequately and astoundingly cheaper. Education has become a brag point. My husband and I would never have tolerated that, and our child never wanted such an experience in any event. The Upper Midwest has good state schools, and your child should do well enough in high school and on exams to get in to one of them. Then they take a curriculum aimed specifically at a future career field, and graduate with decent grades in four years. This is about setting yourself up for adult life, not the "experience". I think part of the "education as exciting experience" thing started because nobody has the money to go to college. Since it's on the cuff, might as well shoot the moon, right? Well, we put our child through college, for four years, at two different good state universities, soup to nuts, with no loans, all on our savings, and we are not rich. It can be done, if you plan.

Mollydod
Fri, 03/15/2019 - 11:57am

Enjoyed your article and a great point for planning advanced education. Michigan has so many excellent colleges and universities, small colleges offer an intimate learning experience, not the 400 + class for many freshmen classes in ‘big’ schools.
I believe if Michigan brought back or updated their Vocational Schools, student would have a better chance of landing higher paying jobs.
I worked very hard to obtain my Vocational Teaching Certificate, but few places to teach.
Ivy League is not for every student.
PS: high school counselors are not the end all for directing students to what is best for them. My HS counselor told me I was not college material, he didn’t know anything about me nor ask about my goals. I went on to obtain my B.S., M.S., post grad courses, and a successful career in research.

Mollydod
Fri, 03/15/2019 - 11:59am

Enjoyed your article and a great point for planning advanced education. Michigan has so many excellent colleges and universities, small colleges offer an intimate learning experience, not the 400 + class for many freshmen classes in ‘big’ schools.
I believe if Michigan brought back or updated their Vocational Schools, student would have a better chance of landing higher paying jobs.
I worked very hard to obtain my Vocational Teaching Certificate, but few places to teach.
Ivy League is not for every student.
PS: high school counselors are not the end all for directing students to what is best for them. My HS counselor told me I was not college material, he didn’t know anything about me nor ask about my goals. I went on to obtain my B.S., M.S., post grad courses, and a successful career in research.

Bernadette
Fri, 03/15/2019 - 12:45pm

Finally a governor who tells the truth. Whitmer is presenting the reality of the situation. This problem has been created over time and will only be solved over time. If MI is ever going to get back to any respectable place in this country as a place people want to live, supporting this type of change is critical.

Those of you who do not have solutions to problems, keep your "opinions" to yourself. Those who want to solve problems, look at the current reality of our roads, education and water and make a decision to support solutions

Wolfgang Von Trout
Fri, 03/15/2019 - 1:29pm

The author of this article is entirely right - just because a college is highly ranked by outside groups does not mean that it is the correct choice for any particular student. It is also true that the efforts a student makes to further their education while attending college is much more important than the particular college they attend in determining their success. However, I feel the author misses the point of the motivation behind the recent admissions scandal. In my opinion the parents involved in that scandal were less concerned with their child's success that with the status that our society accords to parents whose children attend an elite college. To be able to say to your friends that "Mary is going to Yale" or "Mike is attending Harvard" is itself a method of social ranking. For a wealthy and well-connected parent to admit their child is attending a less well-regarded college is an embarrassment in that social circle.

Gregg
Tue, 03/19/2019 - 9:43am

The author is right and essentially saying what I learned when our son was in this mode some 10+ years ago - find a school that fits the student, not vice versa and the parents' egos. If the school doesn't fit the student, it will only serve to add to the costs (financial and other) that are already illegitimate, over-hyped, and way overpriced. Besides, at least half of the "required" courses of any curriculum are unrelated to the final degree and more than 50% of students today take longer than 4 years to graduate for any of a number of reasons, including lack of finances.

Eugene A Jenneman
Tue, 03/19/2019 - 2:15pm

Both of our sons attended Northwestern Michigan College (a community college) and then went on for their 4 year degrees elsewhere. Both are successful and not burdened with the extra debt that comes from the first two years at a 4 year school. Community Colleges provide small classes, give students at chance to explore options in their course of study at far lower costs and in most cases makes them more prepared for the last two years. The Elite Colleges are not the "be all or end all" in a student's future. You can get a great education and the opportunities that education can bring if well planned for the work world to come at state schools as well. Of course Vocational and Trade schools are the best answer for many when it comes to job training and preparation. But consider also the purpose of an education is not only to get you a job as vital as that is, but also to prepare you to be a learner for life as jobs change etc., and most important to hopefully prepare you to be a critical thinker so that you can navigate the world beyond work in which you live. There again, Life-Long Learning programs offered by most community colleges can play an important role in doing that for our citizenry throughout their lives.

Ann Liska
Wed, 03/20/2019 - 8:38pm

I've spent most of my adult life in higher education, and I have never known anybody who tried to profit from recruiting, testing, and/or admitting a student. I can't imagine that this ever crosses the minds of the people I know, yet we are all now tainted by this scandal. The perpetrators and their kids, who either knew or should have known what was going on, should be prosecuted accordingly.