The latest cheating scandals, from Great Neck North to Stuyvesant High School to Harvard, serve as yet another reminder that in the world of college admissions, applicants are cooking the books.
Cheating is not a new phenomenon. More than 20 years ago, my Long Island high school went through its very own cheating scandal, although overshadowed by the other scandal unfolding a few miles away (yes, the infamous "Long Island Lolita"). While less salacious than "Amy & Joey," our scandal caught three cheaters and subsequently shut them out of the National Honor Society. After much parental pressure and resignation in protest by the faculty advisors, the cheaters were admitted in an ad hoc induction ceremony. Not the material for a made-for-TV movie, but an early lesson on academic integrity.
Why was it so important for these students to be in the National Honor Society? Believe me, it wasn't the coolest group in school and the gold pin was hardly a fashion statement. Likewise, why would Great Neck North students pay thousands of dollars for stand-ins to ace the SAT/ACT exams for them? Why would 71 juniors at Stuyvesant High School cheat on their final exams last June, and 80 percent of students at the elite magnet school admit to cheating in some form?
It is easy to blame the college admissions process, but that is like blaming our jeans for being too tight. We need to look at ourselves, how we approach the process, and in particular, how we overinflate the importance of getting into the "right" college at any cost.
The post-mortems after these scandals reveal that entry into a "dream college" was the end that justified the means. The life or death, all or nothing rhetoric is alarming. In a 60 Minutes interview last year, Samuel Eshaghoff, ringleader of the Great Neck SAT/ACT cheaters, boasted that he was "saving lives," giving students a "new lease on life." In his own words, these students are "gonna go to a totally new college... gonna be bound for a totally new career and a totally new path in life." For someone who prides himself on acing the SAT, his logic is way off.
The standardized test savant isn't the only one suffering from faulty logic. Many assume that cheating in high school is a necessary evil to get into a selective college. According to one Stuyvesant student, "They're proud of their achievements in college... and sometimes the only way you could've gotten there is to kind of botch your ethics for a couple things."
What the cheaters don't get, and many of us who turn the other way fail to grasp as well, is that even though cheaters may gain entry into a prestigious college, they take their compromised ethics with them. An acceptance letter is not a baptism that washes away past sins. Just think of the 60 Harvard students caught cheating in a single course this past fall. If cheating worked in high school, why should students stop in college?
Yet we are still hesitant to impose real consequences on cheaters. We give them a slap on the wrist with one hand, but then a pat on the back with the other. The cheating Harvard students got an academic sanction, but will graduate with a Harvard diploma and chances are society will be blinded by the "H" word and overlook any moral scrapes. Years back, a Harvard student won a huge publishing contract, then lost it over charges of plagiarism. She went on to law school. The Great Neck cheaters? Some are now working on Wall Street.
Overvaluing where kids go to college encourages them to ditch their values to get in. We are teaching students that success is determined by where you go college, not how you live your life. Do parents really think an Ivy League degree is more important than integrity? I don't think they do, but something changes on the eve of junior year, and parents are duped into believing that getting into the "right" college is necessary for success, and worse, a reflection on their parenting.
College does not make the kid. Let's forget about college admissions and see our kids for the human beings they are. If we want them to be truly successful, we need to spend more time developing the person, not the resume.