The recent college admission scandal has sent shockwaves through many educational communities, including private-independent schools. Questions of ethics, judgment, and trust when it comes to donor gifts and admission have all come into play.
It's a careful balance between managing parental expectations and donor relationships—all while focusing on providing the best mission-appropriate education for your students. We sat down with a School Head who navigates these channels each day to hear his perspectives on today’s pressure to succeed.
Steve Freedman, Head of School at Hillel Day School in Detroit shared his thoughts with Dr. Paula Schwartz, Director of ISM Fundraising Services.
Paula: Steve, what are your thoughts about the recent college admission scandal. What are the implications of buying access to a school?
Steve: There is nothing surprising about what occurred. I am sure there are many other people engaging in the same illegal activity, but they haven’t been caught. These parents were caught.
Our school is early childhood through grade 8. Activities like this happen in high school and college— but the seeds are planted in elementary school. It manifests itself in parental anxiety, hovering, and overparenting.
A lot of overparenting is driven by fear—but many of those fears are phantom. What parents should fear most is overparenting, because that is what really puts kids at risk.
Think of the messages that these high school kids receive from their parents. With these actions, parents tell their children:
- It is okay to engage in illegal and unethical activities to get ahead.
- I really don’t think you are capable and, therefore, I have to intervene.
- You are too fragile to work hard to earn what other kids are earning.
- I have no confidence in you.
These are the messages parents send when they do not stand back and have faith in their kids to navigate life—its successes, failures, and struggles.
I think we are harming our children and it doesn’t begin in high school—it begins in elementary school.
Q: How big of a problem is this?
A: There are degrees. We have parents who say “I would never do that,” but don’t see anything wrong with trying to get their child a diagnosis to get extra time on college entry exams or SATs. There are many people who game the system to give their child every advantage possible.
But there are also parents who say, “No, we are not going to cheat to help you get ahead. You are going to earn it.”
We really need to step back and allow our children to develop and make mistakes, and then encourage them to get up and keep trying.
Let them go outside, play, and learn to resolve conflict with friends on their own. Celebrate when they succeed, but give them independence, even when they fail.
Q: What about the influence of parental donations on the admission process?
A: I don’t think donations should give you an advantage over any other person. Donors should give to an institution because they love it and want to support the education of all children who attend. Unfortunately, there are places in the college and independent world where, if you give enough money, your kids will get an advantage.
At Hillel, we have been very clear that you give donations for the right reasons and right reasons only. Big gifts are not going to give you special privileges and will not get you special dispensation.
We make this clear in our words and our actions. When there’s an issue about a child or grandchild of a big donor, we deal with it the same way we would deal with any other child. If there is an issue that we deal with through a particular process, they cannot circumvent that and come directly to the Head of School because of their donations.
Q: Let me ask you about a case that came up once in my own work. The grandchild of a major donor applied to the school, but the child was not qualified. The Admission Director was clear that the child would not succeed in their program. In this case, the Head of School made a call to the grandparent, the major donor, to inform him about the decision. Do you think this was appropriate?
A: It depends on whether the Admission Director wanted the Head to call or whether the Head called on his own. I think it is fine if the Admission Director and Head jointly decided that is the way to go.
For example, the Admission Director might have felt uncomfortable or intimidated, and the Head thought the donor would hear it better coming from him. I would have a problem with it if the Head took it on himself or herself, without it being a joint strategy.
Q: Talk to me about legacy families. If a student is mission-appropriate, then they come into the admission pool. But if they are not mission-appropriate, would you say they should not have access, no matter how many generations of the family have enrolled at the school?
A: Yes, that’s my view. You are not doing the child any favors by putting him or her in a school that won’t work for that child.
Q: What do you do when you have two mission-appropriate children—one from a legacy family and one from a non-legacy family—and just one spot available?
A: I think the legacy child gets the advantage. However, if the legacy family applies late while everyone else has applied on time that is hard. You may say “Not this year since you missed the deadline. We really want you, but other kids were accepted and we don’t have a space.”
But if they are both mission-appropriate and applied at the same time, I think the decision goes to the legacy family. Schools often give first preference to families that already have their other children in the school. If all things are equal, you take the legacy family because they are already part of the school community.
Q: Are there other lessons to be learned from the admission scandal?
A: I think there are at least two.
- Educators have a moral responsibility to work diligently and passionately to educate parents against the culture that leads to this behavior.
- Our schools can’t be part of the messages that elicit unhealthy competitiveness, elitism, and an emphasis on getting into a certain college that then causes parents and our students to be crazed.
Q: You talked about helicopter and snowplow parents and the messages they send. What can schools do about that?
A: Schools must advocate for what is best for students, even when parents don’t accept it or fail to recognize it.
We don’t push kids ahead because parents demand it. We don’t concede to parental demands to placate them, when we know that it is not in the best interest of the child.
In terms of messages:
- Kids need to play.
- Kids need to be left to their own devices to figure things out, with adults as guides on the side.
- Kids need space.
- Schools need to be environments where kids get to try things and feel safe to fail along the way.
Q: What has your school done to promote these messages?
A: Back in 2003, Hillel was a more traditional school. We have pulled back from focusing on grades and homework, shifting the focus to learning.
We have given children more choices at school in terms of their learning. Our learning here is much more active and engaging for the kids.
We do a lot of parent education and try to support our parents in various ways. We have a program about how to build resiliency in our children, and we bring in professionals to speak. We encourage our teachers and parents to read the books we are reading to support these notions.
But we have more to do. I push a lot, and then I get push back from parents because they are afraid their kids will not be ready for high school. I tell them, "They WILL be ready for high school.”
Q: Thank you, Steve. We appreciate your insight.
We are grateful to Steve for taking the time to share his perspective. Steve will take the helm as Head of School at New Milford’s Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in July 2019. Congratulations to Steve on this new role!
If you have questions about creating the right guidelines to help your school navigate parental relationships and accept donor gifts—while best serving your school and community—we’re happy to help. See our available Consulting Services in fundraising and development as well as admission and enrollment management.
Additional ISM Resources:
The Source for Private School News Vol. 18 No. 7 Admission Cheating
Additional Resources for ISM Members:
I&P Vol. 43 No. 16 Keys to a Successful College Counseling Program
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