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'There's No Shortcut To Success,' College Counselors Warn In Wake Of Admissions Scandal

A Stanford University student walks in front of Hoover Tower on the Palo Alto, Calif. campus. Authorities have charged college coaches and others in a sweeping admissions bribery case. The charges were unsealed against coaches at Stanford, Wake Forest, Georgetown, the University of Southern California and the University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles.  (Paul Sakuma/AP)
A Stanford University student walks in front of Hoover Tower on the Palo Alto, Calif. campus. Authorities have charged college coaches and others in a sweeping admissions bribery case. The charges were unsealed against coaches at Stanford, Wake Forest, Georgetown, the University of Southern California and the University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

New details are emerging about what federal officials are calling the country’slargest college admissions scandal. At least 50 people have been charged in the scheme. Among them are parents, coaches, exam administrators and brokers, who accepted millions of dollars to place kids in elite schools.

Private admissions coachDave MarcustellsHere & Now’s Jeremy Hobson he was surprised by the “audacity” of the scheme, but not by the sentiment behind it. When speaking at an event in Newport Beach, Calif. about college admissions, Marcus says he was asked by parents, “How much do I need to pay a university? How much do I need to donate for a building to get my kid in?”

“There are so many kids who are under so much pressure,” says Marcus (@MarcusDave), author of the book “Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges—and Find Themselves.”

“I’ve dealt with many parents who actually offered to pay me extra … to completely write kids’ essays,” he says.

Lisa Micele, the director of college counseling at the University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Urbana, Ill., says she too wasn’t entirely surprised by the recent scandal.

“I do think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” she tells Hobson. “I think that more of these type of behaviors are going to come out to the open.”

Interview Highlights

On the man who partially led the admissions scheme, William Rick Singer

Lisa Micele: “Again, this isn’t always just a story about celebrity. I mean, the man who is now in the forefront of this fraudulent scheme … basically preyed on families fears … by talking about the elite schools.

“[Singer’s] catch phrase, which was on his flier that I saw four years ago, was, quote, ‘Getting into college is not a secret. It’s a science.’ And if you actually know this process and you counsel from the heart and help kids be authentic, it isn’t a science. It’s an art. It’s an art of building a class.”

On the problem of parents who are so eager to get their kids into elite schools

Dave Marcus: “It’s way beyond that, and I can speak to you as a parent of three—two of whom have gone through the college process—and I tell parents when I speak all over the country just to relax, to enjoy it, to make it about letting the kid discover who he or she is. Help the kid figure out what dreams he or she has. And yet, as a parent, I have to tell you, you worry about your kids. Will they get good jobs? Will they find a way to find footing in this economy, where you’re not going to go work for one company for 20, 30, 40 years? So, it’s way beyond admissions. It’s about the fears we have, and I sense it in middle-class communities just as much as wealthy communities.

“The sense is if you go to one of the top 30, 40, 50 elite colleges in this country—mostly private—that that’s going to ensure your kid’s future, and that’s going to ensure good earnings, that’s going to ensure being in a startup or being in a big corporation. It’s not that simple at all. Their fears are exaggerated in some ways, and more important, they’re doing all the wrong things by pressuring their kids, by trying to game the system, but I do understand where it comes from.”

On the idea that going to an elite school is the key to happiness and success

Micele: “Dave hit the nail on the head when he talked about [how] there’s now this belief system that there’s some magic ticket to basically ensure happiness and a roadmap to success, and we see that seeping down into K through 12 schools, … and it just doesn’t work that way. And when you talk with families about, ‘Look, this process is about self-reflection, depth of research, taking an honest inventory of who you are as a young person,’ they literally will often not want to do that work and find the easy route. … Rick Singer was quoted as saying, quote, ‘My parents wanted guarantees, and I had to find them a side door.’ There are no guarantees, because there also is no guarantees to happiness and success.

Marcus: “There is a guarantee we don’t talk about, and the councilor I wrote about in my book ‘Acceptance’ always tells parents, ‘It’s not about where you get in. It’s what you do with those four years.’ If you’re curious, if you think, if you question, there is a guarantee of sorts, which is that you’re going to be better qualified for this job market.”

On the importance of gap years

Marcus: “The best thing you can do for many kids is have them take a gap year. Go work at a restaurant, go have a real job, go volunteer, go study something obscure, go travel if you can and live in another country and be part of that country. That’s a guarantee that you’ll be a better, successful person in many ways, not just in sort of what ticket you got.”

On some parents’ lack of faith in their children, and families who are no longer “coachable”

Micele: “There’s different layers to this scandal and whether or not kids knew about what was going on, … but what a sad testament or a belief system that parents had, that they felt like they had to basically manufacture their child to look better, because they weren’t good enough on their own accord to get in.

“What I get so worried about is this misguided and dangerous tunnel vision. … We talk constantly about these kids just needing to grow and thrive somewhere and that some schools that may not be on their radar are ones that they need to consider.

“But if I can tell you one theme that I’m seeing, I’m seeing families that are not coachable, are not teachable. I’m to the point where at some of my workshops, I just want to start with my intro and say, ‘If you are here to learn how to get into the elite, top-tier schools that get all of the press and all the notoriety and U.S. news, please leave, because that is not what this talk is about. If you’re here to learn about how to bring your authentic voice to this process and not manufacture yourself and push your children to do things that they don’t genuinely connect to, that’s the goal of this process.’ And I don’t think a lot of families and students—because they are burned out, confused, tired, scared, have a misguided definition of the future—are able to necessarily grab onto the fact that there are no guarantees.”

On the effects this scandal has had on colleges’ admission departments, and colleges as “engines of social mobility”

Marcus: “The colleges themselves are not charged with wrongdoing, but it shows that the process, the admissions process is fraught, is corrupt in many ways, and I use corrupt in a broad way. Because, look, parents have offered me huge amounts of money to basically get their kids into college, in that they don’t ask me to take the tests—I’d be terrible at that—but they ask me to write essays, they ask me to coach the kids on interviews, they ask me to make some calls to admissions offices. This is so wrong, and what I’ve done in college coaching is wrong in a lot of ways too.

“I try to basically tell students, as Lisa said, there’s tens of thousands of colleges out there, and often, the ones you haven’t heard of, the ones that aren’t the fancy ones, are the ones where you can really make a difference. So, we have a huge problem in the admissions game, that someone, somehow has decided there are only a few acceptable colleges to get into.

“We really should remember that colleges in this country are engines of social mobility. They’re ways of people getting up the ladder from all incomes, and admissions has to be not about the money you have, not about the test prep you can afford, not about bribing coaches or even wowing admissions people with manufactured things and going to Nicaragua for three days and saying that you rebuilt the village. It’s all about curiosity and learning and trying and striving and, as I said, questioning things.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Jackson Cote adapted it for web.

This article was originally published on

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