In light of the recent Varsity Blues scandal, we’ve all been scrutinizing the parents who decided to illegally get their kids into university. This problem is not limited to the sins of Becky from Full House. Because while parents who were photoshopping their children’s faces onto a rowing team or bribing coaches into faking participation are certainly a problem, I think that the scope of the problem is much wider. Just because we don’t pay off our admissions officers, it doesn’t mean we haven’t bought into the message that Ivy League universities are the goal of life and getting into them is key to success. Accessibility to resources such as tutors, SAT prep, and university counselling is an issue which some universities have begun to tackle, though I’d argue that there’s no way to weigh privilege in a fair way.
But regardless of wealth or background, I don’t think there will ever be a way to quantifiably measure how suitable a candidate is. University admissions are very arbitrary because they rely on applying point amounts to different traits a person claims to have, and I don’t think this will ever fully be able to capture the nuances of that person’s character. The result of this is that the game of university admissions comes down to making our decisions based on what we think admissions officers want to hear: kids feel like in order to get into university, we constantly have to present a deceitful facade to cover up the inadequacies of who we really are. I think what goes unnoticed are the effects that this kind of behaviour has on kids’ self-esteem. It’s not just that parents force kids to do things they don’t want to: the kids force themselves to do it because they’ve been indoctrinated with the message that getting into Harvard is the sole indicator of success. The mindset that the only things that matter are those that get us into university creates a false sense of self-worth that is tied solely to our ability to achieve. “The only good things in life are those that fit on a resume” is a message that we begin to internalize at younger and younger ages.
And there are so many things that don’t fit on a resume. Where do you put “is honest and hardworking”? Where do you put “is a role model to younger students”? Where do you put “is kind to others”? Sure, maybe you can write on paper about how good of a person you are, but the qualities that really matter aren’t ones that can be proven or measured in written form. The most important things that kids should be striving to be aren’t significant in the university-centric yardstick that parents rely upon, and as a result, kids start to lose qualities like good character because we think they don’t matter.
Where does this view of university actually come from? It starts off from a well-intentioned place, no doubt. Parents, especially immigrants, want to push their children to succeed and wanting your children to be happy and successful is a great thing. For parents who come from rural areas of countries like India and China, getting high grades and getting into university is imperative to be able to leave farm life behind for other careers. The mistake is when parents think that this means top-tier universities are a necessity for their children too, and a necessity for them to be happy. To be clear, I do think that university is great for many kids. I think that getting high grades and doing well in school is something that kids should aspire to. But I don’t think that this should be what determines a child’s self-worth, nor do I think that it will always be super useful. Furthermore, the nature of careers in the modern day has changed dramatically. Increasingly, university education has become less important because many are self-employed or in fields where a degree isn’t necessary. Getting an English degree is only a good idea if you really love English because it won’t necessarily result in employment. But even if we accept that university is necessary for all people, this doesn’t mean that Ivy League universities are the only good ones. Having everyone know the name of your child’s university shouldn’t be what you look for in a school, but rather the programs and culture of the school. When we embrace a hierarchical ranking of universities, we embrace the kind of mindset which creates problems like Operation Varsity Blues.
Are you still concerned about parents who bribe admissions officers to get their kids into the Ivy League? Take a look in the mirror, then, because we’re all a part of the problem.
March 25, 2019