‘I feel like every grade counts’: Students, counselors react to college admissions scandal

  • Colleen Scanlan Padeck, a parent of a student at Easthampton High School, talks about the college admissions scandal. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Miles Ellsworth, a sophomore, at Easthampton High School, talks about the college admissions scandal. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Miles Ellsworth, a sophomore, at Easthampton High School, talks about the college admissions scandal. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Jillian McGrath, Natalie Gooler-Slough and Brigitte Gooler-Slough, students at Northampton High School, talk about the college admissions scandal. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Miles Ellsworth, a sophomore, and Christine Soverow, a school counselor at Easthampton High School, talk about the college admissions scandal. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jillian McGrath, a junior at Northampton High School, talks about the college admissions scandal. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Natalie Gooler-Slough a senior at Northampton High School, talks about the college admissions scandal. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • From left, Jillian McGrath, Natalie Gooler-Slough and Brigitte Gooler-Slough, students at Northampton High School, talk Thursday about the college admissions scandal. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/14/2019 6:34:48 PM

AMHERST — The federal investigation code name sounds like something out of a movie: Operation Varsity Blues. And, fittingly, the historic college admissions scam involved plenty of high-profile public figures and celebrities, including actresses Lori Loughlin (of TV’s “Full House”) and Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives”).

The actresses are among 50 people who were charged Tuesday in a nationwide scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college insiders to get their children into some of the country’s most prestigious colleges — spending an estimated $25 million total, reported the Associated Press.

Across the country and across social media, the scandal has sparked a deeper reckoning with the process behind college admissions.

That conversation is also playing out in Hampshire County, home to the Five Colleges and hundreds of students applying every year to colleges across the country.

“I wasn’t surprised that some of this stuff has come to light,” said Chris Soverow, a school counselor at Easthampton High School. “We’ve always known that people have allowed themselves to be unscrupulous in the college admissions process.”

Still, she noted that the level of manipulation in the recent case was surprising.

“I’m sad for parents that just don’t have faith and confidence in their children and feel they need to buy them their happiness. It was like, wow, just taking a step back: What are you doing as parents? Why do you feel like you have to do this?”

In discussions with students, Soverow said the news has made them question the system. “For a kid thinking ‘I want to go to this school based on my own merit’ to know that the system for a few colleges — it’s certainly not all colleges — has been rigged, and it’s been rigged for a while … they’re questioning it all.”

She pointed to athletics as an example. Those who are recruited to play certain sports, such as football and basketball, in some Division I programs, are treated differently. “That has existed forever,” she said.

“Mostly it’s just sad to me,” Amy Scully, a career and college counselor at Hampshire Regional High School, said about the scam. “Clearly there’s so much pressure for college and for kids to succeed … It shocked me the extent they went to buy their kids these opportunities.”

She added: “It seems not surprising that the system can be cheated fairly easily.”

There are other ways — legal ones — that wealth plays into the admissions process. Scully pointed to college admissions practices that are not need-blind, meaning the school takes into account the applicant’s financial information.

“It’s pretty obvious that parents that can pay the full bill, those kids are going to have a better shot at getting into those schools,” she said.

Myra Ross, a college adviser at Amherst Regional High School, said: “There are definitely multiple areas of inequality that regularly play out in college admission.”

“When I counsel students, I am pretty clear that this is not a particularly fair process. I always talk about affordability and the fact that students with financial resources usually have more options,” Ross wrote in an email. “My students also know that the admission bar for recruited athletes and legacy students is often substantially lower than for students lacking those advantages.”

Ross was quick to point out that admissions professionals at colleges aren’t the ones setting the priorities, and that the whole ecosystem is complicated. “In fairness to colleges … the institutional priorities that often control admissions are complex and often pertain to the health or even survival of the colleges,” she said. “Reform in college admission has been a topic of discussion since I entered this field, but achieving it is difficult because creating new winners also creates new, unwilling losers.”

Students’ reactions

On Thursday in the Northampton High School parking lot, senior Natalie Goeler-Slough shared her thoughts on the subject: “I can’t say I’m that surprised. I feel like money often equals power.”

“There’s such a pressure to get into these good schools,” said her twin, Brigitte Goeler-Slough, who will be attending Wesleyan University in Connecticut in the fall.

Jillian McGrath is a junior but said she already feels the pressure. “I feel like every grade counts,” she said.

Natalie Goeler-Slough said some schools she applied to have said they received a record number of applications this year: “It’s just adding to the stress, of course.”

And that stress — or anticipation — starts early. Miles Ellsworth, a sophomore at Easthampton High School, has had his sights set on college for a while now. “I’ve been thinking about college since the day I stepped into high school,” he said.

The news is concerning, he said, adding, “I still do think the college system is somewhat fair, but it’s definitely unfair this happened.”

Colleen Scanlan Padeck, the parent of an Easthampton High School student, was concerned about the message the cheating, in particular, sends to students. “We have to make sure children know you have to earn this,” she said.

High school counselors, meanwhile, said it’s possible the scandal will lead to some positive changes.

“I think it’s going to cause the industry to take a step back and improve and make sure the playing field is truly equitable,” Soverow said. “I think something positive will come out of all this.”

Scully said the bombshell news could galvanize schools to do more to make sure that information students are portraying in their applications is accurate. “It would be great if schools had more checks and balances,” she said.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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