By Laura Kohn-Wood
The current ‘scandal’ involving college admissions cheating is, unfortunately, not completely surprising given what we already knew about the great lengths some parents will go in an effort to give their children perceived advantages in life. I remember the mix of horror and fascination I felt at a 3-year old’s birthday party as I watched a parent nudge my inexperienced child out of the way to scoop up piñata candy for their 3-year old child. My son and I were both new to the piñata ritual, but I remember thinking that if he wanted to get in on the candy action, only getting the 4 or 5 wayward pieces that had accidentally flown out of the scrum was a good lesson for him to learn for future parties. And life. It didn’t occur to me to grab the candy for him or to pay the birthday child’s parent to give my son a front row position. And anyway, he had enough sugar by that point in the party.
It is absolutely normal to want the best for your child. It is also normal to develop a form of familial myopia from a hyper sense of parental obligation to do whatever you can to ensure your child’s optimal future. What is not normal is to actively cheat or lie to game the system, which lacks integrity and totally violates the basic tenets of American meritocracy – which for some of us has long been debunked anyway. Most of us hopefully know that not all children get their fair share, most of life is not fair play, and therefore many children do not have a fair chance at success. What is striking to me about the current example, is the totally misguided parental assumption that having a child, any child, attend a specific college or university will somehow ensure success. Of course, it depends on how you define success. As a parent, and as a college professor and administrator with more than two decades of professional experience, success to me is a happy, thriving, engaged child or student. The name on the higher education institution is far from the best driver of happiness, engagement or the kinds of optimal developmental and learning experiences that can happen during college. I have known students, including myself, whose success in college was absolutely determined by what can best be referred to as “person – environment” fit. There are more than a handful of environments within which a child can thrive – and the best determinant of optimal fit is a complex set of factors, little of which have to do with the name of the school. The current scandal suggests that for some amongst us, a sense of self-worth is determined by being able to say to others “my child attends X University” even while knowing that the attendance was gamed and not earned. While it is true that data indicates attendance at some schools, like those highlighted in the scandal, is correlated with several kinds of post-college advantages, assuming that a specific school will ensure success is akin to believing that money buys happiness. Evidence shows that a certain level of income is necessary to exist free of life- and health-impacting stress … but the data on whether money is related to happiness, and the dollar amount at which the correlation between income and happiness diminishes – is mixed. Like most things in life, it depends. Deaton & Kahneman’s 2010 report cited 75K as the demarcation line, however other researchers indicated that after a certain level of income it is what you do with the money you have, that determines how happy you are. College attendance is likely the same. It is what you do with it that determines your happiness. To me, happiness is the outcome that most parents would or should want for their children. Starting your child’s college experience off with an acknowledgement that they cannot achieve without cheating or paying, seems like it could handicap your child’s sense of self-worth – leading perhaps to future parents who also measure their esteem by the achievements they cheated to get.
Dean Laura Kohn-Wood