Helicopters, snowplows, lawnmowers, drones—vehicular metaphors have been rolled out in force to describe the type of parenting being gleefully blamed for the college admissions scandal. Article after article has quoted psychologists shaking their heads over students so unprepared for life without their parents that they can’t pick out food in a college cafeteria by themselves and college professors complaining about students who don’t understand how to make a simple phone call.
The idea of a parent so desperate to get their child into a specific university that they would bribe a school official validates all of our most judgmental notions about modern parenting, and honestly, there’s a sanctimonious pleasure in reading about parents who are so over-the-top protective that they call ahead to review the menu when their child dines at a friend’s house.
What’s getting lost in this discussion, though, is that there are many, many children who could use real help in removing the obstacles in their paths to college.
If there’s a certain amount of middle class schadenfreude to the absurdity of a rich parent paying the equivalent of a new Tesla to photoshop their child’s head onto the body of an actual student athlete, just think about how that looks to a high school kid who has no time for extracurriculars because of a job that contributes to the family bottom line. As we wring our hands over children being “robbed of adulthood” by their snowplow parents, its important to not lose sight of the kids who lose aspects of childhood to circumstances beyond their control like poverty, illness, and misfortune. While high school completion rates rose, college enrollment rates dropped between 2008 and 2013, especially for students from the poorest families.
Working closely with students who are the first in their families to attend college is something that Brian Coleman, a school counselor at Jones College Prep in Chicago, has been focusing on with his team of counselors. “How do we better target and support our first-generation students, students who do not have exposure to college as a process?” Colman asked in a phone interview. “I think some of the big obstacles that stand in the way are awareness and education. The students don’t know what they don’t know about the college planning process, the college admissions process, and it can be quite complicated.” In his school, about a quarter to a third of the students hope to be first-generation college attendees, and about 40% qualify for free lunch.
“Financial aid and financing an education is a considerable obstacle,” said Coleman, who was named the 2019 School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association. “Understanding the FAFSA…the deadlines, understanding the need for tax information, and some obstacles in collecting tax information, especially if your parents are undocumented.”
Even when students successfully navigate the admissions and financial aid process, the costs of college are not limited to tuition. The Government Accountability Office recently release a report that found that 30% of college students are food insecure. Many students struggle to cover tuition, housing, transportation, and child care costs.
In the US, 51.8% of public school students qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2015, an almost 13% rise since 2000, and as of 2012, about 34% of undergrads were first-generation college students, as of 2011-12. About one-third of Americans above the age of 25 have a four-year degree or higher, up from 28% in 2006. College attendance rates are on the rise, yes, but another way to look at this is that the majority of high school students do not have parents who can lead them through the college experience, from application to graduation, based on their own experience or within their means.
When you are a middle class parent whose child has agonized over a college application, and you’re bracing for the financial strain that college will present, the spectacle of the very rich essentially purchasing an acceptance letter inspires righteous fury. It highlights all the ways in which the system is not fair. All the hand wringing over different parenting styles is really a way of distancing ourselves from appallingly bad behavior.
What’s lost in this is the realization that while there’s nothing unethical about being a family in which both parents attended college, and for whom the application process is familiar, if laborious, those are real advantages that many kids don’t have. Feeling comfortable in a college setting, walking into an institution where the staff and faculty look and sound like your family is an advantage—there’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But when we gawk at the egregious bad actors and distance ourselves from the pushy snowplow parents, it’s a missed opportunity to really look at how the college application and matriculation process further marginalizes kids who don’t come from families in which going to college is an expectation and a baseline normal experience.
For middle-class families playing by the rules and trying to instill independence in their own children, it may be a bitter pill to be compared to the cheaters and to annoyingly privileged parents whose advocacy for their kids is on the raggedy edge of socially (ethically and legally) acceptable. Still, those advantages are very, very real.
It’s probably best not to have snowplow parents who rewrite their child’s college essay three times, but students who find the application process especially challenging could benefit from some path-clearing mechanism to make the process easier. Making college more affordable, and getting rid of standardized tests and legacy admissions are places to start. Being aware of culturally based privilege is another.
“Alice in Wonderland is not just a story,” says Coleman, speaking of the through-the-looking-glass sensation many students confront while contemplating college. “For some students, that is their real experience when it comes to trying to navigate the college admissions process and trying to understand a world that they’ve never had access to. And that reality, that disorientation and confusion and fear and bewilderment is real. It’s for many more students and populations than one might think.”