A student is caught texting during an exam, a clear violation of the honor code at her high school. The teacher looks at the student's phone. Who is on the other side of the conversation? Who is supplying the answers to the test? Another ethically challenged student? No. The answers are coming from mom.
At another high school, a student turns in a paper. The teacher runs all papers through "Turnitin.com." ("Turnitin.com" checks papers for academic integrity and while they boast that they're not "playing gotcha," there are those of us who argue that there is indeed something to be said for playing gotcha.) The paper is plagiarized, purchased from a website. The student's defense when confronted? "I didn't buy this paper." Well then, who did? Who purchased the stolen paper? Who paid the money for the plagiarized assignment?
Wait for it: the student's father.
A student with impeccable (in retrospect, "improbable") credentials is accepted as a transfer to Harvard. He has 1600 boards and more AP courses than anyone in the history of the applicant pool. His recommendations are glowing--incandescent, really. Except of course his entire file is a complete and utter fabrication. He faked the whole package.
Now, no matter how thin you make the pancakes, they always have two sides. Still, it is hard to imagine the contrasting view, the circumstances that would allow a mother to reasonably believe that she was acting in her daughter's interest by helping her cheat during an exam. It is hard to articulate the argument that the father could make as to why he purchased a paper for his son. Surely, no reasonable parent would stand up as being in favor of cheating and plagiarizing. These examples are as egregious as they are deplorable, contrary to everything good educators stand for, that good parents believe, that good students talk about. Surely nothing comparable happens on a daily basis in admissions. Surely admissions is only about honorable people trying to select a well rounded class from among many qualified applicants. Surely there are no prevarications, exaggerations or outright lies. (And no, I will not stop calling you "Shirley.")
Is admissions always ethical? You be the judge. Here's what goes on in my world:
Fast ap's. The "Office of Enrollment Management"--known, in the late Pleistocene, as "The Office of Undergraduate Admissions"--sends "Apply Now!"emails to students in selected zip codes. If your child received an email that began "Apply Now!" wouldn't you infer that your child's chances of being admitted were good? If so, you would be mistaken. The reason colleges send "Apply Now!" emails is that they want to increase the number of applicants. The reason that colleges send "Apply Now!" emails to your child is because you live in the right zip code.
Financial Aid. "We guarantee to meet the demonstrated financial need of all our applicants." Pants on fire. There are maybe 20 schools who are well endowed enough (read: "have enough money") to meet the demonstrated financial need of all applicants. Yet I have been told that "we meet the demonstrated financial need of all applicants" endlessly. I have visited over 200 college campuses and met with admissions personnel at most of them. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that a college "meets the demonstrated need of all its applicants," my children would no longer qualify for need based aid.
I'll get you in. Counselors, both public and private, intimate, suggest, hint, imply and sometimes just come right on out and say it explicitly: "I know someone," "I'll get you in. "Oh, and here's my favorite scam from a recent headline:" Give me money and I'll tell you how to dress for the interview. Give me money and I'll tell you how to dress for the interview? I'll tell you how to dress for the interview right here: "Don't show up for the interview naked." The interview itself has little influence on admissions decisions. How a student dresses for the interview even less. Yet some counselor had the unmitigated temerity to charge thousands of dollars for advice about how to dress. "I'm seventeen years old and--dahling--I just haven't a thing to wear to my college interview.
Why do interviewers take photographs of students? Because they don't want to admit kids with acne? Wrong. Interviewers take photographs so that they have some hope--however small--that they'll be able to remember who the heck it was they interviewed at ten a.m. Tuesday morning by the time they've interview a dozen other kids by three p.m. Thursday afternoon.
Here is the real role of the ethical counselor: to assuage anxiety about the admissions process; to dispel misconceptions about the admissions process; to help a student find her proper match. Gaming the system or giving the appearance of conveying an unfair advantage are both, well, unethical.
I welcome you stories of cheating--from both sides of the desk. Bonus points will be given for stories in which the perpetrators were caught and punished accordingly.