Cheating and Coaching, Part 1

So, a humongous story in education and parenting politics story hits this week, and where I am? I just dashed out a quick open thread for you all to talk and then retreated to twitter and to another article that I was working on for weeks that is having issues and to handle Ian’s IEP meeting.

But now the problem article has been put on the backburner. I’m skipping a trip to the gym this morning. Ian’s situation is settled for the time being. And here I am. What part of this story shall I handle first? I could probably just write non-stop for hours. Hmmmm. I think I’ll talk in general about high-income parents and the college process.

I wrote about parents and education a couple of years ago for The Atlantic and then spent the better part of the winter putting together a fellowship application to expand that article into a book. (Fingers crossed. I’ll find out in April, if it happens.)

So, I’m out here in an upper-middle class suburb of New Jersey. The parents aren’t at the level of Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman. They aren’t able to bribe people to take their kids SATs or buy a building for a college, but they do have some means. More than we do.

I’m a bit of an outsider in this town, not just because we didn’t have a six figure 529 for our son. We moved here when Jonah was in seventh grade, so I don’t have the strong connections to other families that are typically established when the kids are in nursery school. As a special ed parent, I see the world very differently from other parents; I’ve learned to redefine a successful life as simply a job, an apartment, and a romantic partner. And my academic training always helps me view life here in a detached sort of way.

While those Uber-wealthy parents who are at the heart of the latest scandal, were guilty of some rather egregious crimes — crimes that could lead to jail time and have already lead to much public outrage — it’s not that hard to understand how it happened.

Their crimes are simply the logical and extreme extension of behavior that is seen as normal and acceptable a few notches down on the economic ladder.

To clarify, when I talk about parents in the suburbs, I am mostly talking about women. The job of ushering kids from nursery school to college is firmly on women’s laps. The guys are simply too busy making money. Whether they are full-time parents, have flexible jobs in real estate, or have high powered jobs in law or medicine, women are in charge of the kids’ education.

If they are full time parents, they have more tools at their disposal. For example, they become PTA presidents in exchange for backroom deals with the principals for better teachers for their children. But the women with high powered jobs still have a lot of control. They simply make calls from their offices on Wall Street to their nannies and tutors and other support staff at home.

All of the women are highly educated and very professional. Even the women who are home full time have serious resumes. It is not unusual for the PTA president to have an MBA from Harvard. The PTAs here are run like Fortune 500 companies.

So, these type A individuals are used to achieving and winning. And they attack their jobs as parents with the same zeal and perfectionism that took them to the top of their investment bank before they had children. Yes, some of these moms are former traders on the cut throat world of Wall Street. So, that ruthless competitive personality is now on the pick-up lines at the elementary school. And their children are their new job.

When it was time to get Jonah ready for college, we did way more than my parents did, but way less than another parent in our town. He took a two-week, low cost SAT class. I made a chart for him on the fridge with important deadlines. I steered him to colleges that I knew that he could get into and that we could afford. We visited some of the schools, not all, that he applied too.

At the time, I was a little cross about everything that we did, because my parents didn’t do any of that for me. All those tasks, I did on my own back in high school.

But I didn’t hire a college coach. I didn’t write his essay for him. I didn’t fill in his applications for him. I didn’t film him while he was opening his college acceptance e-mail, and livestream the blessed event on Facebook.

And I told him no, when he wanted to go to a school that was going to cost us about $100K more in four years than our in-state college. I guiltlessly told him no. Are we the most evil parents in the world? Some in our town might think so.

I was chatting with a friend yesterday at YMCA swim practice about all of this. (Sidenote: I spent the whole day on twitter with academics/writers/education people talking about this. Then talked about it with real life moms. And then watched more discussion of this topic later at the gym on the TV console above my treadmill. When does that ever happen?)

My buddy, who is tied more closely to the crazy parents in town than I am, said that a $5-10K college coach is very typical around here. I scoffed at the idea when I heard about it a few years ago. Arrogantly, I think I know more about colleges than any anybody else, so that seemed like a huge waste of money.

But the buddy said that her friends were using the coaches for more than steering the kids to the right schools. These coaches were filling in the essays and short answer questions on their kids’ applications.

I said that if the kids aren’t smart enough to fill in their college essays themselves, they would end up flunking out of college. They wouldn’t be able to pass their exams. She shrugged. The kids with their coached applications were making through college just fine.

Now, why is that? Maybe it’s because the college application process is ridiculous. Maybe it’s because the parents continue hovering and coaching while the kids are in college.

I know people who write their kids’ college term papers for them. Not editing them. Like they do the readings, research, whole paper, footnotes, everything.

Alright, this post is long enough. I’m going publish and write more later.

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16 thoughts on “Cheating and Coaching, Part 1

  1. I think this:
    “I said that if the kids aren’t smart enough to fill in their college essays themselves, they would end up flunking out of college. They wouldn’t be able to pass their exams.”

    is not true. The colleges want something very specific, and that’s what the coach provide, it doesn’t mean anything about the abilities of the student.

    What is sad is that the admission offices do not seem to recognize the ghost written essays. When I taught, I thought it was easy to recognize the plagiarized papers. Now I wonder how many got by me.

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    1. Someone did an experiment on that — on whether papers that were written by online services could be detected by the profs. I think I referred to it in a previous thread, in which a PhD student was trying to buy a dissertation proposal, ad reported the service to the better business bureau because her committee didn’t like it. The bottom line was that profs weren’t very good at detecting the purchased essays.

      That’s one of the failures of the system — making it high stakes and then the adcoms thinking they can detect faking.

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      1. bj said,

        “That’s one of the failures of the system — making it high stakes and then the adcoms thinking they can detect faking.”

        Tulip and bj,

        I remember recently reading a piece in a freebie college advice magazine that appeared at our home that said that the people who read college essays want to see the student in the essay and don’t want an over-processed essay that’s been passed through too many adult hands.

        I rolled my eyes so hard.

        On the other hand, I have to say that I question whether it’s possible to write a different fresh, unique, engaging application essay for dozens or hundreds of clients. Nobody is that original. I feel like there would be a lot of temptation for repetition/recycling–and remember, we’re not dealing with extra ethical people. I also know from experience that it’s difficult to mask one’s voice as a writer or speaker. We’ve seen even just in the comments here that people have very recognizable voices, even when they just forget to put in their names, and I’ve seen elsewhere on the internet how people can even try to disguise their identities and reappear under a fresh handle–and yet it still sounds like them. We all have “tells.”

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  2. Sometimes we know it’s not the student’s paper, but we can’t figure out how to prove it. I had a colleague going nuts over a paper last term that he was convinced was plagiarized, but he couldn’t figure out how. He recruited me to look, but I had no success either, and I’m very good at that kind of thing. We eventually decided was that best case, she handed in a paper she’d written for a class at another college (she transferred) or she had someone write it for her. I looked up where she was from – an affluent town next to the town I grew up in and is known to be one of the highest achieving school districts in NY.

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    1. Wendy said,

      “Sometimes we know it’s not the student’s paper, but we can’t figure out how to prove it.”

      Fairly or unfairly, in admissions, you wouldn’t need to prove it.

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  3. Although I have so many thoughts, I don’t know what I can add to what you’ve written. I’m, potentially, your “better connected” friend, except that I’m viscerally incapable of really being connected. I have been in the “neighborhood” (mine is private school based) since the nursery school days; I know those moms (you call them PTA moms, but I call them auction moms, because our PTAs are run by the betas, while the alphas run the auction).

    The ones I know are, as far as I can tell, lovely people who do significant work to build communities and are not uber-competitive, and try pretty hard to bring enough resources to the table so they can share. They are also wealthy enough that 100K to pay for the extra candy is no big deal and have children who are highly talented/capable/whatever we want to call it (that’s the circle where I met them). But, they also want their kids to get their dreams (and, yes, the ones I know are pretty focused on their kids dreams, and not their own). A number of them are happy to hire tutors, coaches, personal trainers, personal college counselors. None of them are willing to admit in any way that they would write an essay. The next step, of understanding how all of these individual decisions affect the system at large, and to accept any risk for their own child, is hard.

    Laura sometimes talks about the internal struggle when she uses her skills to help I- find the services he needs — that she knows that others don’t have the same capacity and children loose because of that. The women hiring the counselors feel that way, too, but also aren’t willing to let their kid slip through the cracks (even if the crack is not very big, and doesn’t lead anywhere bad, by real world measures).

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  4. I just commented on this on the previous post! I’m starting to see it in the midwest now too (but only from the wealthiest here.) I have to agree with you that kids who can’t manage the application process are going to have a tough time navigating logistics/deadlines in college….but also assume that parents who are going to hire an application consultant are also going to continue to intervene/support at a high level.

    We were like you – no consultants. We didn’t even do any test prep classes.

    I’m starting to see these kids (whose parents did everything) in the workforce, and it’s not pretty.

    But for the uber-wealthy, that’s not really going to matter. They certainly don’t need something like a basic office job to survive….

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    1. “The kids with their coached applications were making through college just fine. Now, why is that? Maybe it’s because the college application process is ridiculous.”
      Big-deal colleges are not all that hard these days – they rely on the admissions process, in my view, to get themselves students who will (mostly) burnish the brand. And they can afford to take some marginals whose money builds a new library etc. Leads to a little bit of friction (one of my best friends said of his undergrad days at Harvard, “We knew who didn’t belong there”) but, well, a library was a library. Big thing happening here was little players in the admissions game were running money sideways into their own pockets,
      My view is that we should open wide the gates to the big-deal colleges – whyinnahell we allow a $30 billion hedge fund with an eleemosynary side business called Harvard University keep running as a tax exempt? There are enough levers to force them to open Harvard-Omaha and Harvard-Fort Worth and Princeton-Spokane. Lessen the crazy value of the admit, and we tempt the laborers in the admissions vineyard less.

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      1. Never going to happen, without aggressive government intervention because the exclusivity is the whole point. As Laura writes in post #3, the classes themselves aren’t particularly special. Someone should study that, actually.

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    2. kristenell said:

      “I have to agree with you that kids who can’t manage the application process are going to have a tough time navigating logistics/deadlines in college….but also assume that parents who are going to hire an application consultant are also going to continue to intervene/support at a high level.”

      I’m doing a lot of reading on ADHD right now, and I believe that having a coach for your college ADHD kid is a highly-recommended practice. In fact, I’ve been reading recommendations to have a coach in high school.

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  5. “Their crimes are simply the logical and extreme extension of behavior that is seen as normal and acceptable a few notches down on the economic ladder.”

    You know, not really, because I would have thought some of these people should have known the difference between the equivalent of tax avoidance (legal) and tax evasion (very illegal). People like Caplan (the co-chair of Wilkie, a major law firm) are used to parsing rules to make systems work for them. That’s the regular way to solve a problem, one that doesn’t cross into the territory of a crime. People learn the words to make sure they don’t cross the line — for example, you can’t really give a 10M donation with the quid pro quo of admission, because then your 10M wouldn’t be a deductible donation. You have to do the deal in plausible code.

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      1. His article reminded me of the uproar after TX adopted the top 10% rule. The universities really, really hate it. I sometimes wonder if part of it is now those students don’t have to feel grateful. They earned their spot and don’t have to feel grateful that someone recognized it, or gave them a chance etc.

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      2. Not sure what you think I disagree with in the Cowen column? I do see the point about laws we follow v once we imagine we are not expected to follow (though I am a rule following nut who thinks we should only have rules we follow). I also agree that these folks are on a slippery path where tutoring becomes doing someone else’s work which becomes elaborate schemes to cheat on standardized tests, while justifying themselves on the ludicrousness of the process.

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    1. It’s interesting the press is focusing on the actresses’ children, when there are some really big fish caught in this net.

      As far as I can figure out, John B. Wilson is a former Bain guy, currently Lead Director and Audit Committee Chair of Mutual Fund Board at Franklin Templeton Investments. https://www.crunchbase.com/person/john-b-wilson#section-overview

      BJ, I’m sure he knew that he was breaking the rules. Did he care? And further, showing a willingness to break the rules in one instance does lead to the suspicion that he breaks the rules in other areas. From reading the government’s documents, he was the one who fell for an invented “side door” into Harvard. I suspect the government investigators really wanted to catch this guy, because he is responsible for the oversight of something like $740 Billion in mutual fund investments.

      Do you think the universities will expel the students, and/or rescind any diplomas? They could, given the documented fraudulent applications. I think they should.

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