What Modesto high school counselors have to say on scandal, college admissions

The entrance exam and college admissions scheme exposed earlier this week in the indictments of dozens of people, including wealthy and celebrity parents, comes as kids across Stanislaus County — and elsewhere — are receiving acceptance and rejection letters from schools to which they applied.

It can be an agonizing time, waiting for and unsealing envelopes after months of filling out applications, writing personal essays and perhaps securing interviews, all the while still working to secure scholarships and other financial aid.

Local high school counselors have a message for students and families who may be even more stressed now, suspecting the whole system is rigged: Breathe.

“So many kids are under pressure, depressed, doing self-harm,” Enochs High School college counselor Jennifer Brogan said Thursday. “We have to look at what’s important, which is students’ mental health. Getting into an elite college is not the end all be all.”

There’s always been an underlying truth that the rich and famous have connections and can make big donations and pull strings to get their offspring into the best universities, Beyer High academic counselor Brianne Duran said.

They can afford all the extras like private SAT and ACT coaching and personal athletic trainers, Brogan added. “They have a definite advantage, but the part that’s so disappointing and disheartening is the cheating, the outright fraud, changing test answers or bribing coaches. That part is just awful.”

It’s also nothing new, Johansen High School college and career counselor Melanie Hildebrandt said. The difference is we used to believe cheating and bribery were the exception, she said, “but this makes it sound like for at least a big chunk of people, it’s more the rule.”

And we didn’t think that big donations, or having a famous name, was a guarantee, just a leg up, she said. The blatancy of this week’s revelations, though — like actress Lori Laughlin and her husband, designer, Mossimo Giannulli, paying $500,000 to have their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team even though they did not participate in the sport — is a slap in the face to hard-working, top-quality kids who do everything right, Hildebrandt said.

As hard as it was to learn of the bribery and fraud scandal, Duran said, it’s good that light is being shed on the issue, people are facing charges and a big deal is being made of it. “Hopefully, it will allow things to move forward in a positive way for our students.”

Managing expectations

If students are considering applying to Ivy League and other elite universities, Brogan said, they should do so from a healthy perspective: that the schools are, for anybody, a long shot. Counselors need to get across to students and parents that a college education is not about the name of the school, or it making the U.S. News & World Report top-10 list, she said.

“The flip side,” Hildebrandt said, “is there are over 5,000 colleges in this country. Why are the top 50 the only ones worth going to?”

Brogan noted that when she speaks in junior classrooms, she points out that among the nation’s biggest CEOs, a lot went to state universities. Former Starbucks CEO and possible presidential candidate Howard Schultz went to Northern Michigan University. Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, is a University of Nebraska grad.

By and large, the admissions process — especially for state campuses — is above board, the counselors say. It’s very competitive, though. And there’s no magic formula to getting accepted.

In general, it’s important to have good grades, tackle rigorous coursework, take part in some extracurricular activities and be involved in your community, Brogan said. Even then, every counselor has seen kids rejected who seem to have done everything right, are very deserving, appear to be all a school could want in a student.

Duran tells students and families, “It’s not just checking off boxes, it’s caring about something, being passionate.”

Hildebrandt agreed: Don’t pick the school for the name. Discover what you love, then find a school that fits.

Being well-rounded works how well?

“The landscape is ever changing, which is why I have a job,” Hildebrandt said. “I heard at a conference three or four years ago something that really changed my opinion.”

She learned that universities no longer are looking for the well-rounded student — the ASB president who plays football and flute, or volleyball and violin, is an Eagle Scout or Habitat for Humanity volunteer.

They’re instead looking for a well-rounded student body, and what niche an incoming freshman will fill in it.

“So, for example, Stanford, with their 97 percent denial rate — because that’s much more interesting to look at than their 3 percent acceptance rate — they don’t look at a lot of West Coast students, unless they’re athletes,” she said. “The general, normal, average West Coast Northern California student isn’t going to bring a different conversation to the table at Stanford. Now they will bring a different conversation to the table at Harvard.

“It’s good because it opens up seats at the table for minorities, the underserved, women in STEM, whatever it may be to get that more well-roundedness without completely discarding the typical white male.”

Everybody can have a place at the table, Hildebrandt said, but any particular demographic will have far fewer places.

“The reality is trying to get kids to look beyond the brand,” she added. “More important is getting a good education and what you do with it. Most employers don’t care about the alphabet soup behind your name. They want someone who’s going to work hard, do what they’re told to do, and those are skills you can learn at any college.”