College Admissions Scandal: Helicopter Parents? More Like Lawnmower Parents, Says College President | Opinion

Well-heeled parents have been begging and borrowing to get their children into elite colleges for decades. Admission to a "top" school has become a status symbol like owning a fancy car, a yacht or a second home. Thus it should be no surprise that some parents are willing to steal to get their kids into top-ranked institutions.

Fifty people, including 33 parents, were charged this week with a variety of offenses including cheating on admissions exams and bribing coaches to get into competitive universities.

I understand the anxiety parents feel. My son is a high school sophomore and we've just had our first official college visit. My hope for him is that he finds a college that is the best match for his values, his talents, his ambitions. I've suggested that he might well find that match outside the pre-approved lists of highly ranked colleges.

But even for a college administrator like me, the admissions process can be daunting: anxiety is the norm for students and parents alike.

But at what point did these parents come to value getting their children into a particular college more than they value modeling honesty and integrity? Is obtaining admission into one of these institutions worth losing what once we (quaintly) called honor?

The sad truth is, we've been on this trajectory for a long time, and anyone who works in higher education has seen plenty of evidence. The parents charged this week are the most extreme of the 'lawnmower' parents—those who mow down every obstacle in front of their children—in that they have created a world in which their children's success justifies the abandonment of all sense of integrity.

All parents want what they think is best for their kids, but we have lost our way when parents think it is okay to cheat, steal and bribe to get their kids what they couldn't get on their own. Wealthy individuals, of course, already use their resources and access to help their children become more successful. This week, we've seen the depths to which some will go.

I don't think parents twenty years ago would have colluded to game the system rather than encourage their kids to work harder. Nor would those parents have spent the hours some routinely spent today advocating for their children on everything from admission to grades to playing time in athletics.

Such parenting is poor preparation for the world college students will live in. Call me old-fashioned, but if bad news comes in the admissions process for my kids, as surely some will, I plan to tell them to retake the ACT, hit the books, try the next school. And to take up any complaint they may have on their own. We want our children to become responsible adults, and we learn the most through failure and setbacks.

At Alma College, where I am president, our faculty have built our curriculum around hands-on experiences—international study, research with faculty, internships—that challenge students by encouraging them to engage a world they don't yet know, try bold experiments that may not work as planned, explore career paths that ultimately may not be a fit. We know that these experiences connect what students learn in class to the work they will do—and the lives they will lead—after graduation. We encourage students to go well beyond their comfort zones precisely because we want them to fail fast and learn resilience as a result.

Thirty should not be the new twenty: we need to demonstrate to our children, and to our students, that they are responsible for their own successes and for their own failures. If we are forever clearing difficulties out of the way, we risk sending them into their adult lives incapable of taking responsibility for their own futures. And we need to model for them how to live their lives proud of the decisions they have made.

These 33 parents are just the most egregious example of a trend long in place. Their case is a sad reminder that too many in our country are concerned with the ends and not the means.

We would be better off today if we focused on helping young people to make their own way in a world that they will be in charge of soon enough. One of our most important jobs as loving parents is to teach our children to be responsible and independent adults. We might start by helping them to understand the place that honor still has in the good life.

Jeff Abernathy is president of Alma College in Alma, Michigan.

The views expressed in this essay are the writer's own.