Why Your Kid Isn’t Going to Princeton and a Bunch of Other Top Schools

Many of us forgot one of the most striking things about the last great college sports scandal – I’m not referring to the illegal early recruiting stings, the under-the-table payments to incoming athletes and their parents, or even the many perverts caught in the locker and training rooms. It was a revelation from the Varsity Blues scandal, where fancy, famous, and affluent parents bribed coaches and other admissions officers and used fake resumes to get their mediocre offspring admitted to prestigious colleges through the locker room door by claiming that they were serious jocks.

As the stories slowly unfolded, what became apparent is that some of the kids involved didn’t even want to go to college. In each case, the main driving force was a clever con artist named Rick Singer, who combined his mastery of the college admissions process with his ability to manipulate and stroke the pathetic parents’ egos, their competitive social concerns, and their desperate need for bragging rights. These folks may have gone to inferior schools or none at all, but their kids were going to the moon, and they’d tell the whole world about it. Talk about living vicariously through your kids. Of course, this isn’t exactly unexpected or difficult to understand. No one associates famous TV or film stars with healthy and happy childhoods or with being great parents. In truth, though, you don’t know what you’re capable of until you have children.

But that’s all yesterday’s news. There’s a major new storm on the horizon that suggests bad news for millions of late-Millennial parents with high school aged kids, even though their own aspirations are far more modest than those of the bi-coastal cheats. From here on down, it’s all uphill. These aren’t people seriously looking to get their kids into Harvard or Yale; They’d be pleased as punch just to be sure that their kids got into a “good” school – one like they attended themselves. Ideally, one that was at least as well regarded as their own alma maters. But their kids most likely won’t be headed anywhere near their folks’ old stomping grounds.

The sad realities that will be playing out over the next several years for millions of families are: (a) as the parents often sarcastically say, they themselves would no longer be accepted and admitted to the colleges and universities they attended since the entrance criteria have been radically raised; (b) the upper middle range of schools (not Ivy League, but certainly Big 10), which would have been largely “socially” acceptable for their kids to attend, are now so selective and difficult to get into that their offspring will have to “settle” for schools in the next tier down — not necessarily in academic terms, but certainly in the media and reputational sense; (c) many of the schools are finally limiting or discarding legacy admittance criteria, which used to be another sneaky way in, as well as reducing or abandoning their reliance on standardized tests; and (d) there are no longer any such things as safety schools for most students where there is an absolute assurance of acceptance – even including state universities.

Getting into the top 25 private universities and maybe another 10 well-regarded state schools has always been difficult, but it’s never been this difficult or as likely that highly qualified students with exceptional academic results, superior test scores, and extensive extracurricular and charitable activities would be consistently rejected by top universities. But that’s what’s happening. And the clear cause isn’t that the kids credentials have changed, it’s that the colleges and universities– trying to meet diversity and equity goals — have moved and changed the goal posts and literally pulled the rug out from under these kids’ futures . The switcheroo is so patently obvious that the Supreme Court, before the end of its current term, will be ruling on cases brought by Asian-American students who claim that they were denied entry based on the admitted fact that seats were given to other, less qualified but more highly prioritized applicants.

There are other explanations for the increased student and parental anxiety and concern, including three primary drivers.

(1) The elite colleges refuse to increase their class sizes and continue to exploit, market and pride themselves on their exclusivity and the ridiculously small percentage of applicants accepted each year. They are not too proud, however, to accept costly and material application fees from tens of thousands of students each year who have zero prospects of being accepted. Princeton’s class of 2025 had 37,601 applicants and offered admission to 1498 students. The class size issue will be exacerbated by the fact that many students who deferred or interrupted their studies due to the pandemic now plan to enter or return to college.

(2) Colleges across the spectrum are under increasing pressure to increase the diversity of their student populations and they are setting aside larger numbers of seats in each class for applicants meeting diversity criteria, who may or may not meet all of the other criteria as well. Assuming that every other criteria is the same, it’s theoretically “no harm, no foul”– except to the thousands of aspiring students who didn’t make the cut, which is no different in that regard than at any other time. There’s obviously never been room enough for everyone. But the pending lawsuits allege that the scales were more than a little tilted in order to preference diverse applicants. This will be the central issue for the decisions to decide.

(3) Financial aid has turned into its own crazy, sweepstakes-like process with high schools encouraging their exceptional students to apply for as many scholarships as possible and then the schools brag and solicit media about the aggregate dollars which these few students have accumulated. The net effect of these stupid, self-promoting stunts is to prevent or preclude other qualified students from accessing some of these awards in a timely fashion, which makes it more difficult for them to apply to certain colleges and universities without the assurance of financial support to attend if they were accepted.

So, Sonny or Sally won’t likely be going to old Faber College where Dad was president of the Deltas or Mom was a student leader. But it’s possible that there’s a silver lining in all this drama and angst and, of all things, there’s even a lesson to be drawn from the Varsity Blues scandal itself.

It’s far more important to prepare the kids for the path and its alternatives than to try to prepare the path for the kids. Maybe the best and biggest favor parents can do right now for their college-bound kids is to lower the heat, reduce some of the stress, temper the level of expectations, and then ask their kids what it is that they really want to do. They may not have a clear or obvious answer, but they are entitled to a choice.

Maybe they don’t care to go to some expensive four-year school, study whatever, end up with a long-term college debt along with their parents, and graduate with a degree in nothing employable so they can become the best barista on the block . Maybe they want to explore some high-end vocational training – learn some real substantive and technical skills – graduate and jump right into a job paying a solid six-figure income and never look back at what they allegedly missed. Or they may want to become an apprentice for some union job that will be here forever, not be exportable to China or India, likely be based in their hometown, and provide an assured path to a middle-class, solid and protected income. In the future, far more mechanics will be working with keyboards and computers than wrenches and soldering irons and making $100k plus.

The lesson here is pretty simple. Much like the fantasy tale of 80’s and 90’s that everyone needed to own their own home, it’s less clear that not everyone needs their mortgage future to attend a four-year college to obtain a degraded degree in whatever which is becoming a less important factor every day in the successful search to find gainful and satisfying employment.

Just because we’ve always seen for centuries that becoming a college grad was the be-all and end-all in the movies and on TV and that it was something to be devoutly wished and hoped for doesn’t make it true or even desirable any longer today.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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