Most of us are familiar with the college admissions scandal in which wealthy and accomplished parents allegedly lied, cheated and bribed to get their children admitted to elite universities. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote an excellent essay on the topic in the March 14th edition. In it she offered her explanation that these parents view their children as narcissistic extensions of themselves, and consequently used whatever means necessary to gain advantage.

Noonan added that her experience teaching Ivy league students was less than ideal. She didn’t like their attitudes toward other classmates and considered themselves superior simply because they were admitted to a prestigious university. She contrasted her experience with how polite, sincere and genuine students acted at a second-tier school in Tennessee.

Regular readers of this column know that I have three daughters, one of whom graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brandeis University, which is often viewed as an elite university. It certainly was expensive enough! My middle daughter is graduating from the University of Florida this May and will continue for her doctorate in physical therapy while my youngest earned an honors fellowship at Elon University in North Carolina.

While I can assure you that I didn’t bribe any coach or admissions officer, today’s application process is emotionally grueling both for student and parent. The process seems arbitrary and often makes no sense which kids are admitted, and which aren’t into a given institution.

Criminality aside, the competition to gain admittance to even popular state schools like the University of Florida is fierce. I’m a three-time UF grad but I’m not certain that my high school grade point average and SAT scores would gain me admission today.

The high school and college experience of today, I’m afraid, is exponentially more difficult and stressful than what my generation experienced. All three of my daughters graduated summa cum laude from Fort Myers High School’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program. The studies were rigorous. Over my daughters’ high school years, my wife and I had to calm down several anxious crying spells leading up to exams as our daughters were overwhelmed with projects and homework.

Gaining admission into even the best state schools requires building not only an academic resume but one that highlights athletic, civic and community involvement. It seems that our modern pressures have stolen at least some of the innocence and the care-free nature of youth. And even with all that, the high school counselors will tell their students that certain schools will be a “reach.” Students are encouraged to apply to one or two “safe” schools into which they’re certain to gain admittance, and then concentrate mainly on good “match” schools.

During one of the dozens of college tours my wife and I endured, an admissions officer at Emory University in Atlanta provided the most candor. “How do we decide between two A+ students who have equally impressive extracurriculars?” he rhetorically asked. “It’s the luck of the draw. Say, for example, our orchestra professor tells us that he needs a tuba player. That applicant might gain advantage over others who have higher grades and test scores. Or if we need less pre-meds and more liberal art candidates to keep a professor’s class full, then that applicant who checked he’s pre-med will lose out to the one that checked general liberal arts studies on her application. It varies year by year.”

I understand that this is hardly comforting to parents of current high school juniors and seniors. The pressure is on. We want the best for our children. And since it costs so much anyway, we want our kids to come out with a degree from an institution that will hopefully lead to gainful employment.

I’ve been trapped into that thinking for sure.

What’s the solution? There’s no easy one. I was talking to a parent of a current high school freshman who told his son not to enroll in the IB program. “I want him to enjoy high school. If he doesn’t get into the University of Florida or some other highly ranked state school, I’m okay with that. It’s what you do after college that’s important.”

Maybe we need more parents like that.

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.