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Student's bikes on a snowy campus day.

The Price of a College Admission Scandal

I had to pull my  jaw off the floor reading the recent reports of parents and college admissions consultants gaming the system. Even though the college admissions process has never been ‘fair,’ the hacks these people created stooped to a whole new level. I should qualify this post with the fact that as a fourth generation applicant to Smith College, I was a beneficiary of the uneven playing field myself.  Even though I was admitted to equally fine institutions, I attended Smith as a legacy. What’s more, all three of my children were recruited athletes to Ivy League institutions, competing in squash, and leading and captaining their respective college teams.  Although they were qualified candidates, the ability to bypass the general application pool was an enormous boon. These schools admit about 220 recruited athletes per year across all sports whereas the general application pool is flooded with upwards of 30,000 people. Tough odds for even the best of the best.

As in life, systemic privilege has always existed with college admissions, although typically more subtly, reserved for those in the know, those tipped off early as to how the game works. (I’ll go ahead and throw myself in that group.)  The parents who worked with “The Key,” however,  were made aware of a “side door,” and did whatever it took to gain entrance at the eleventh hour.  It was like a big, bad case of cutting in the carpool line. The transcripts included in the indictment depict parents who had no problem with the six-digit price tag for an admissible test score, on the condition their children were none the wiser, as if betraying a child’s trust was fine as long as it went undiscovered. One father even laughed at his child innocently assuming he’d achieved a good ACT score on his own.

In my forthcoming novel, The Nine, Hannah Webber is a middle class mother who prescribes to the slow and steady approach (much like mine): nightly dinners, homework sessions, attendance at sports practice, healthy breakfasts, school pick-ups and drop-offs or at least a best effort.  There is mundanity to the routine, a year-in-year-out scheduling of parent-teacher conferences, supporting kids through ups and downs, but always emphasizing hard work and doing one’s best above all else.  Consistency. Trust. Listening.  It isn’t always easy. And again, probably speaks to the privilege of a childhood where a parent is at home to provide the steady support. But just like many parents today, Hannah Webber will realize even her best efforts aren’t enough when pitted against parents with money.

Privilege is pervasive in reality as well as fiction, but the recent revelation of cheating has provided our culture with a moment – not only to gawk at the defendants’ insane behavior, but to evaluate the status quo and the spectrum of admissions abuses: how donations to schools are treated, why athletics and athletes should matter so much, how unlimited test taking time and bogus doctor diagnoses has become a thing.  It’s an important conversation, but I hope the point that hits home the hardest for parents (including Hannah Webber) is that integrity, honesty, and a relationship with their children built on trust will always be worth more than any diploma!!

 

Back on Campus – School Stories

back on campusYou’ve probably seen all the photos on Facebook and Instagram – it’s graduation season and I can’t believe how my friends’ children are growing up! Graduations mark a big accomplishment for students as well as parents. Whether its high school or college, it is monumental to have crossed this major finish line.

Our middle son graduated from college on Memorial Day Weekend. It was a wonderful weekend that brought our family together to honor him and all his hard work. There were ceremonies and cocktails and dinners, but what I most appreciated was being on campus.

A campus is an island whether its remotely located or embedded in a town. It’s a self-contained world with traditions and a culture and rules of its own. It is self-governing and is populated by a revolving door of young adults. It has its common spaces and its hiding places. It has its own rhythm with quiet mornings and raucous late nights.

As a parent, walking onto a campus, or into a dorm or classroom building, feels like sneaking – dare I say trespassing after all the tuition we’ve laid out! But we aren’t supposed to be there, when we visit we are voyeurs to a special place and time that is no longer ours. And our children, who have license to occupy the space, might do so with the mindset of a traveler on an extended journey. They will be moving on, after all. So, it becomes a first home away from home, an experiment in living alone.

Aah if the walls could talk. The campus has seen growth and love and dissent and resistance. The campus has seen victory and protest. The campus has seen homesickness and nostalgia. The campus has witnessed trepidation and pride.

Maybe that is why, in addition to the romance of an actual green quadrangle surrounded by ivy-laden brick buildings, I have always loved the campus novel. What do you think of this line up:

I devoured all these books. A writing teacher had me watch “The Sterile Cuckoo,” starring a very young Liza Manelli and filmed on the Hamilton College campus. There are the more main stream hits: Love Story, Animal House, and Harry Potter but I think I’ve made a point – drama or comedy, literary fiction, or a trashy delve into Restless Virgins, lots of people find the campus entertaining. There is something primal about a world unto its own – it’s a microcosm of society, with all sorts of “Lord of the Flies” possibilities.

I am working on the final revisions of my novel, The Nine, which is also set on a boarding school campus. When I wrote EDEN, I hadn’t been aware that there was a whole genre around the “saying-goodbye-to-the-family-summer-home” story line. I am well aware, however, there is a long history of great campus novels. They have been a mainstay of American literature since before Holden Caulfield bolted for New York City. Campuses are filled with intrigue and mystery and the adults in charge of them are managing conflict and staving off scandal. It’s ripe, people. It’s ripe.

I would love to hear what your favorite campus novels are and why!!