Celebrating College

As if this time of year doesn’t hold enough college admission angst, I decided this past weekend to tackle Netflix’s newly released docudrama: Varsity Blues, The College Admission Scandal.

Because I had followed every twist and turn of that case since it erupted two years ago, I figured it would provide a little light distraction as I graded AP World History essays and Humanities reading journals.

I was wrong. In fact, I got NO grading done as I once again descended into the depths of the largest college admission scheme ever prosecuted by the federal government.

Through reenactments and interviews with those involved, the docudrama vividly recounted the lengths to which wealthy and influential parents went to secure spots for their children in some of the nation’s most-selective colleges and universities.

Some paid millions of dollars to buy the help of those who could game the system when it came to admissions to schools including Yale, Stanford, Harvard, USC and many others.

Fifty people – including parents, test administrators and college coaches – were charged in the scheme, which involved hiring people to falsify SAT results, wrongfully secure accommodations for standardized testing and pay off coaches to fraudulently recruit students for sports at which they had no college-level expertise.

At the center of the scandal was a for-profit college consultant who parents paid to bribe coaches and college administrators, establishing a “side door” by which the super rich could push their children to the head of the college admission line.

As college counselor, none of this information was new to me. But I was particularly struck at the end of the docudrama as a group of admissions officials, test administrators and others layered context onto the chaos that too often surrounds the college admissions process, especially when it comes to the scramble to gain access to the nation’s so-called top-tier schools.

“What are we doing to these kids by pounding them into the ground with Top 25 (colleges in America), Top 10, Top 5, because ultimately where you do go to school has little or no affect on what will happen to you in the future,” admonished Barbara Kalmus, an independent education consultant featured in the film.

Added Daniel Golden, author of The Price of Admission, a powerful book on how big money buys big access to top schools: “Forget about USC, go someplace else. You can get a great education almost any place if you want it. The parents in this case didn’t believe that.”

This time of year, those words are particularly meaningful.

As of the end of the week, barreling toward the end of this unprecedented school year, our 21 seniors had racked up 103 college acceptances.

Some of those areto the very same top-tier schools that were the focus of so much attention in the docudrama. But many more are to colleges and universities that don’t make any national Top 25 list, but which our students are eager to explore and perhaps attend.

So yes, Johns Hopkins and UCLA and NYU (all top 30 colleges on U.S. News and World Report’s latest rankings of best national universities) make this year’s list of OVS college acceptances.

But so does Montana State University, a majestic campus in Bozeman where one of our seniors plans to study photography. And Pepperdine University, where one of our seniors is looking at film studies while another is considering business school. And Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where one of our seniors wants to pursue environmental studies and journalism.

As always, our goal remains to help students find and gain access to their “right fit” colleges and universities, those schools that that are going to fuel their ambitions, sharpen their talents and shape them into the adults they were meant to become.

It’s both easy and crazy making to run to the rankings and compare our acceptance list against those at other schools, keeping a keen eye on those colleges the outside world considers prestigious.

But that does our students a disservice, and it cheapens the curriculum and values that we at Ojai Valley School work so hard to promote.

At OVS, we provide a challenging academic curriculum designed to prepare students for college. But that preparation also includes teaching students to climb a rock face and ride a horse and belt out a solo in the school musical. It involves pushing students to get out of their comfort zones, to contribute to and become part of something larger than themselves, to expand their perspectives and see where and how they fit into the larger world.

In that way, college preparation never stops as OVS.

This week, as many of our seniors enjoyed a gentle rafting trip down Utah’s San Juan River, our sophomores took the PSAT while most of our juniors sat for the first time for the SAT. The juniors also are in the midst of working through the college counseling curriculum, preparing to take on the application process next year.

There are more than 3,000 colleges and universities in this country, and the students will spend a lot of time figuring out which of those will fit best with their talents, interests and passions.

But in so many ways, those choices are simply an extension of a philosophy they’ve been living as OVS students. It’s quite a journey, and I’m lucky enough to be along for the ride.

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