Source Credit: Marin Independent Journal
“We know that admissions is somewhat of a game, but from my perspective, it’s unsportsmanlike to cheat,” said David Montesano, who works with Marin County students through his counseling service, College Match. “And you simply don’t need to cheat if you work hard and have a great strategy.”
For those in the business of guiding students through the college application process, news this week of the biggest admissions scam ever prosecuted by the federal government was shocking to some and unsurprising to others.
“I kind of had to laugh, actually,” said Marina Oster, founder of Marin College Counseling and Tutoring. “I’m surprised this is news. It seems this is a relatively common tactic from what I’ve heard.”
The U.S. Justice Department investigation alleges that 33 wealthy parents across the nation, including three Marin residents, paid large sums of money to a college counseling group that cheated in order to get their children into elite universities.
Oster said the case reinforces what she knew was going on all along behind the scenes.
“There will always be people who have a disproportionate amount of resources that will use them to their advantage. We’ve always had that,” she said. “This is an uproar because college has been put on a pedestal. It’s coming from the anger of how much stress that families and students are investing in this process.”
Oster is one of several Bay Area business owners who offer private tutoring, mentoring and counseling services to prospective college students. Many such services advertise giving clients an extra edge through expert insight into the ultra-competitive application process.
The businesses, some argue, give an advantage to students whose families can afford to pay for the services, which can be expensive. A standard, 90-minute session with Oster runs for $285, according to her website. Business owners acknowledge their services are a pay-to-play option for families seeking guidance. But their tactics are a far cry from the alleged cheating and bribery that federal authorities prosecuted this week, some said.
Many high schools also provide on-site counseling for students at no cost. Some have advisers dedicated to the college admissions process. Counselors from several private and public Marin high schools declined to comment for this story.
Montesano’s service focuses on pairing students with the schools that best match their values and goals, he said. Often times, families that focus on gaining admission to schools with the biggest names, he said, are getting caught up in the hype.
“It’s like they want to date supermodels and billionaires, and that’s unnecessary,” he said. “They’re overreaching when they don’t need to, because there’s quality all the way down the line. They’re overvaluing social prestige, that’s the key to this.”
The application process can be overwhelming and stressful for many prospective college students, in part because it is so competitive, Montesano said. Even high school students with near-perfect grades and exam scores face the likelihood of rejection from many top universities because those schools are inundated with qualified applicants.
But those who resort to cheating, he said, are stealing opportunities from students who put in honest efforts to succeed.
“These people don’t want to work hard,” he said. “That’s the bottom line: laziness. Lazy, lazy, lazy.”
Laurie Favaro also runs a college counseling business targeted toward Marin teens. Many clients begin working with her during their sophomore year of high school. She advises them on what colleges are looking for in applicants and gives them strategies to help them stand out from the crowd.
She was shocked to hear about the arrests Wednesday.
“This was at a level that I couldn’t even begin to imagine goes on,” she said. “I’m astounded that so many people were willing to do something dishonest and illegal, and it’s so discouraging for the people who are honest.”
Most of Favaro’s clients are realistic about which colleges are the right fit for them, she said. But she sees firsthand the pressure that high school students in Marin face when it comes to attending college.
That pressure, she said, is likely what leads some parents to use money in an effort to bolster their children’s college applications.
“It’s an unfair system,” she said. “If someone is a huge donor, often their child is going to have an advantage. I think that’s sad, but it’s not illegal. This is different.”
Favaro said she’s seen the rate of acceptance into many top schools decrease over time. She attributes the trend in part to the ease of online applications like the Common Application, which allows students to fill out one form and send it off to several schools.
“More kids are applying, in part because the Common App has made made it very easy to apply to a large number of schools,” she said. “If schools are admitting the same number of students, but the number of students applying has doubled, then the school appears to become more competitive. I think it’s discouraging to families.”
Favaro’s advice to those applying is to keep an open mind. The country’s most elite schools aren’t always the best fit for students, she said.
“What I always say to parents and students is there are so many schools. There are so many options,” she said. “I truly believe that if a college is a really good match for a student, they’re really going to excel, regardless of the name of the school.”