Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He’s the senior academic adviser to the history department at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Rich people sure are fixated on admission to elite colleges. Last March, we learned that some are willing to break the law to get their kids into top schools. Now stories about Sidwell Friends, one of the fanciest private schools in America – Sasha Obama graduated from there earlier this week – are adding fuel to this particular fire.
Alas, problems at the top of society don’t stay there. When the rich fight over college admissions, they send a message that only a handful of schools will do, ratcheting up the anxiety levels for everyone in the education business. The truth? You can find a great education at almost any accredited school. We need to de-escalate the war over college admissions.
The Adetu family in Washington DC is suing Sidwell Friends, alleging that the prep school first discriminated against their daughter, then retaliated against her for complaining, tanking her chance of getting into any of the 13 colleges to which she applied. After applying to schools again, Dayo Adetu was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania (and indicated on social media she graduated last month).
Sidwell also made news in April when its admissions director publicly banned Sidwell parents from anonymously badmouthing other students in pursuit of special treatment for their own children. That director has since resigned.
The Adetu’s lawsuit, in which they allege that Sidwell breached a settlement after discriminating against their daughter in her grades and application materials, may not go much further. Because of the way DC law works, after an unsuccessful appeal of a lower court ruling, the family’s next step is an appeal to the US Supreme Court (a petition the court was scheduled Thursday to consider taking, along with scores of others), which will likely reject this petition.
Still, details are puzzling. The family and the school had settled a previous discrimination case in 2013 in which the school had promised to pay $50,000 (about a year’s tuition), re-calculate some grades, and promise no retaliation. But then Adetu was the only person in her class not to receive “unconditional” (in the words of the petition to the Supreme Court) admission to college the following year – from a school that her parents say touts its 100% college matriculation rate for high school seniors.
In their complaint, the Adetus allege a string of retaliatory actions taken by the school, including mistakes in letters of recommendation, incomplete SAT records and similar actions that they say might have just tipped the scales against Dayo Adetu. Sidwell did not submit a filing to the court in response to the Adetus’ petition, and also did not respond to a request by CNN for comment.
It’s tempting to ascribe all this to rich people problems. Alas, the pressure to get into just the right college has created a network of bad actors, high-octane helicopter parents, schools that can charge over $40,000 a year with promises of college prep and admission, soaring costs throughout the education ecosystem, and record low admission rates at elite schools. Meanwhile, elite promotion of the “education gospel” may in fact move down the economic ladder in troubling ways.
In her groundbreaking book Lower Ed, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom argues that narratives about the essential nature of “higher” education have provided a tool that for-profit colleges exploit in vulnerable populations. Rich folks and rich schools cheating, bullying, donating, and suing to get their kids into just the right fancy college is bad for the children, the elite prep schools, the fancy colleges, and everyone else who cares about higher education.
As an advisor at a big state university and former professor at a school serving mostly first-generation students, over 50% of which were Latinx, I also worry a lot about the message that only the fanciest schools provide an education worth having. I just don’t think it’s true. The connections and networking afforded to Harvard graduates help immensely, but that says nothing about the actual quality of education.
My experience suggests a student can get a spectacular education at a wide variety of institutions and that we are poorer as a nation when we spread myths that say otherwise. In fact, schools where professors are particularly focused on undergraduate teaching, as opposed to the pursuit of elite research agendas, may serve many students better, even if they do so without a name brand. Some students thrive in small classes. Others are better served by the independence and more relaxed social environments of schools with relative anonymity.
In fact, given the mental health crisis on college campuses, it might be better to push students to search for happiness rather than status. I chose to go Wesleyan University, long ago, because I could have a single dorm room as a freshman and I wanted privacy. I’ve never regretted that choice, no matter how non-academic a reason prompted it. I got a great education.
What’s more, an increasing body of evidence suggests a strong correlation between the pressure to be perfect, especially for young people seeking elite college admissions, and depression and anxiety. Students are stressed out by so many things, including tuition debt and the threat of global climate disaster, but college admissions have ratcheted up the pivotal and vulnerable moment of finishing high school and looking towards the first stages of adulthood. We’ve done our children no favors by creating the modern college admissions game. We’ve done society no favors by promoting this narrative that “an elite college is the only college that matters” across lines of class, race and gender.
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This story has a lot of angles, but as Father’s Day approaches, I kept returning to the parenting one. In the forthcoming satirical novel The Gifted School, author Bruce Holsinger (disclosure: a friend and colleague) describes one parent’s relationship with their child as “a living, breathing benchmark, a proof of concept [for] over-invested parenting.” I kept thinking about that word, “benchmark,” as I read about Sidwell. Too many people see college – and the elite prep schools that come before college – as a zero-sum game in which we compete against other parents, and in which our children compete against each other, for a limited resource.
But knowledge isn’t a limited resource. We need to rebuild our education ecology to make it accessible to everyone, changing both the cost structure and the culture that has created a false scarcity. Our children deserve to be children, not benchmarks in some terrible game.