Affluence of PAUSD parents influences college admission decisions

On March 12, federal prosecutors indicted over 50 individuals, including two Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) parents and a Gunn alumnus, for involvement in cheating on standardized testing and admissions processes into top tier colleges. According to the affidavit submitted by prosecutors to the United States District Court of Massachusetts, parents allegedly paid college consultant William “Rick” Singer to fake exam scores and bribe college athletics instructors to admit their children into prestigious universities like Stanford, Princeton and Georgetown. Suspects regularly donated to Singer’s Key Worldwide Foundation. In return, Singer found ways to circumvent the admissions system, attempting “(1) to bribe college entrance exam administrators to facilitate cheating on college entrance exams [and] (2) to bribe varsity coaches and administrators at elite universities to designate certain applicants as recruited athletes or as other favored candidates, thereby facilitating the applicants’ admission to those universities.”

To College and Career Counselor Linda Kirsch, the fact that students use aids like legacy status and internal connections to get into prestigious schools is nothing out of the ordinary. However, Kirsch was surprised that much of the corruption within schools caught in this scandal happened beneath the admissions officers level. “In- stead of interacting directly with admissions officers, the primary perpetrators of the scam had lower-level staff, like athletics coaches, recruit students,” Kirsch said. “It’s interesting to see the people they picked up on—why that group?”

Although completely bypassing the college admissions process is rare, affluent students at Gunn and around the country still utilize an abundance of resources to increase their chances of getting admitted. According to guidance counselor Jorge Chavez, many of the students he provides counseling for have parents who pay for outside college counselors, tutoring and preparatory classes. These well-off parents can afford better counseling, tutoring and other resources to help their children get a leg up.

Part of Chavez’s job is finding ways for lower-income students to gain access to resources similar to their more affluent peers. “I’m assuming that this [instance] is parents wanting to support their children in the best way they possibly can,” he said. “But there are times where I would wonder from our end, what is it that we are miss- ing but somebody is going out to look for?”

Kirsch agrees that affluence has become a major deciding factor in college admissions. “It relates to how much money the family is also investing in all of the tutoring, which again is separating the haves and the have-nots,” she said.

Senior Siddharth Jain, who went through the admissions process, believes that the cheating revelation was just an extension of privileges that wealthy students already have. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “It’s been happening for the past 30 years. Rich people have donated buildings to colleges they send their kids to. Something similar is happening here.”

According to college consultant and Gunn parent Donna Pioppi, the emphasis on wealth is not uncommon throughout the Bay Area and other affluent regions around the country. She says that parents in other areas, such as around Boston, Seattle and Washington, D.C., have similar college admissions firms. Still, the conduct of those involved in the recent scandal still came as a shock to Pioppi. “I am a member of professional organizations that have very well-laid-out codes of ethics of what you can and cannot do,” she said. “I know that for me and many of the other college counselors that I know, we were horrified, absolutely horrified.”

Pioppi can see why parents focus on prestigious colleges, but believes that this mentality is not always the best idea for students and parents alike. “I think, often, parents fall into the idea that what is best for their child is one of the top 20 or 30 most selective schools in the country,” she said. “And I’m not always sure that works for every student.”

There are also many alternatives to the typical four years of college, and Chavez encourages students to explore such possibilities. “Community college is a great alternative to traditional four-year university,” he said. “There are many pathways to reaching success.”