Atlanta psychologist Dina M. Zeckhausen has practiced for about 25 years. In the past five, she’s noticed an uptick in one area of care: college-bound adolescents experiencing anxiety, panic attacks and eating disorders as a result of the pressure they feel to secure admission to top schools.
“Some of them are drinking to cope,” she said. “Their parents are not tuned in to how these pressures are negatively impacting their kids.”
Tuesday’s news that 50 people, including prominent parents such as actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, as well as university coaches and test administrators, had been indicted as part of a nationwide FBI investigation into alleged schemes to secure college admissions, didn’t leave her exactly shocked.
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“A lot of this stems from how narrowly we define success,” she said. “Our self worth is attached to our kids’ successes.”
Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech, talked about some of the ham-fisted antics from over-eager parents his team has thwarted in a 2013 segment for “This American Life.” A common ploy: parents pretending to be their kids for purposes of demonstrating interest in the school love to trot out words like “cool” and “awesome.”
Georgia Tech, on the eve of Spring Break, hasn’t yet responded to our requests to talk with Clark. You can hear his “This American Life” interview here.
Charging documents released Tuesday accuse parents, university and testing officials and alleged ringleader Rick Singer - who has pleaded guilty - of transgressions far more serious than hokey attempts to sound cool and awesome.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling says the $25 million federal bribery case is the biggest college admissions scam to be prosecuted by the Justice Department. Parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee their children’s admission, he said.
“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected,” Lelling said.
The news has been searing to Lauretta Hannon, vice president of Strategic Marketing and Advancement at Atlanta Metropolitan State College.
“It’s sickening,” said Hannon, noting she’d recently worked to secure Marta cards for students her institution learned were walking up to 8 miles a day to attend classes. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you’re here in the trenches.”
Datha Curtis, the mother of a high school student with special needs, is angry that wealthy, "entitled" parents thought it was no big deal to have their kids, who weren't disabled, given testing dispensations normally reserved for those with disabilities.
"It's just disgusting," Curtis said.
As a library media specialist in a metro Atlanta school, Curtis works with students who need additional testing time and other accommodations for their disabilities. She fears that, as a result of this scandal, there will be greater security, making it more difficult for them to get those accommodations.
"People like this make it harder for people with legitimate need," she said.
Although the alleged test cheating was supposedly done through independent organizations and isn't directly attributable to universities, the universities have made those tests part of their admissions process and bear responsibility, Curtis said.
"They need to put pressure on those testing companies to make sure those tests are given with fidelity, and I want to know how they're going to address it," she said. "I think they have to have some responsibility because they have put so much weight on these tests."
Georgia's flagship colleges and universities appeared unwilling to touch the subject.
Public relations departments at five of them were asked about the steps they planned to take in response to the scandal. They said they'd try to arrange interviews or get questions answered, but none followed through.
Greg Trevor, executive director of media communications for the University of Georgia, ultimately said admissions officials were unavailable during spring break.
"We are disappointed to hear the news about the college admissions scandal," he added, in an emailed statement. "UGA will continue to be thoughtful in our thorough and holistic review of applicants, and we continuously review all of our policies and procedures to ensure consistency and integrity."
The public relations departments at Georgia Tech, Emory, Morehouse and Spelman were also contacted. A Spelman spokeswoman initially said she would arrange an interview but later sent a text message: "we will not be able to accommodate an interview for this piece," she wrote, without providing a reason.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling issued a statement urging members to "redouble their commitment to integrity" in their college admission processes. Association president Stefanie Niles, blamed the parents, saying in the statement that the criminal allegations paint an "ugly picture of high-powered individuals committing crimes to get their children into selective schools.”
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