Lessons from a scandal


We wrote about the college admissions scandal previously because there was a slight Martha’s Vineyard connection. When the cheating scandal was uncovered, and indictments and arrests were made in March 2019, former Island tennis instructor Gordon Ernst was implicated. Ernst had been the tennis instructor at Vineyard Youth Tennis until 2006, when he left the Island to take a coaching position at Georgetown University.

Ernst allegedly took $2.7 million in bribes in exchange for getting the sons and daughters of ultra-wealthy parents into the prestigious Washington, D.C., school. Some of the students had never picked up a racket. The case against Ernst has not yet been fully adjudicated. While some parents and school officials involved in the scandal have pleaded guilty and gotten their slaps on the wrist (the public shame probably being the worst of it for some of them), Ernst’s case is pending, with more charges added for his alleged role in the scandal in October 2019. If found guilty, he could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Over the weekend, we watched the Netflix documentary on the cheating scandal, “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal.” They’ve taken some of the actual wiretapped phone calls made between college admissions counselor William (“Rick”) Singer, the kingpin of the scandal, and the parents who hired him, and dramatized them with actors.

There was nothing particularly revealing about the documentary if you’ve followed the case beyond the 60-second news clips of celebrities Felicity Huffman or Lori Loughlin being ushered in and out of the U.S. District Court in Boston. But it was a stunning reminder of the great lengths that some parents would go to for the prestige and bragging rights of an admission to Stanford, Georgetown, or an Ivy League school for their sons or daughters.

Filtered into the documentary are comments from young men and women who worked hard in high school and probably got themselves overly stressed to the point of anxiety to achieve, only to miss out on a chance to attend Harvard, Yale, or Stanford because there wasn’t a level playing field. They were competing against cheaters who had the cash and clout to hire Singer. While they were busting their butts studying for AP exams, Singer was orchestrating admissions for his clients through his “side door” as bogus water polo players, tennis players, and sailors. In some cases, he hired a professional test taker to get his students inflated ACT and SAT scores.

The students who missed out on their admissions were rightfully disgusted by what happened.

This comes as many Island seniors have heard from their colleges (though the pandemic is delaying some decisions) ahead of making a decision by May 1. There’s bound to have been some disappointment, and we’re also certain there are students who are overjoyed at being accepted to the college of their choice. It’s one of the first big lessons in life. You can want something, try really hard, and still not get it. But being able to deal with that disappointment is an even bigger lesson.

That’s where adults come in.

We spoke to John Fiorito, director of guidance for Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, who is on the frontlines with the college admission process with his team of counselors. The school does what it can to take as much of the anxiety out of the process as possible. In recent years, the school has changed from an individual rank system to a decile ranking system for most uses. In other words, students are told they are in the top 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent of their class, but not where they rank individually. “We didn’t want kids to obsess about it every quarter, every semester,” Fiorito said, noting that some individual students are separated by hundredths of a percentage point. “Everybody feels the pressure. It trickles through the whole school community.”

There are no easy answers to ease stress and anxiety, but MVRHS tries to provide support. The school’s guidance and adjustment counselors are available to students going through the process, and Fiorito offers himself as a sounding board for seniors who have questions about it.

For students who don’t get accepted to the school of their choice, Fiorito reminds them that they have no idea what went into the university’s decision. It could be that they already have as many students from the Cape and Islands as they were looking to admit. “You’ll make yourself crazy worrying about those things,” he said.
Counselors preach looking at a variety of schools. The cliché is “reach schools” and “safety schools,” he said. “We tell them if you do this list right, you’re going to be rejected,” he said. “You’re going to get rejected and not accepted to every place, and if we do it the right way, you’re going to find the right school, and you’re going to have choices in your senior year … We try to stress this kind of approach — coming up with a diverse list of schools where hopefully at the end, come May 1, you have a choice.”

Here are the takeaways from the scandal and from our conversation with Fiorito.

To parents: Your child’s education isn’t a status symbol to be flaunted at the country club. College is an opportunity, and there are great ones all across the country, beyond the Yales, Georgetowns, and Stanfords. Fiorito’s advice to parents: “Be your child’s biggest cheerleader.” And set reasonable expectations. “We all need to look in the mirror and say, What’s the most important thing?” he said. “If your child gets a B-plus, is that going to ruin your lives?”

To students: Bounce things off your parents. Talk to your guidance counselors. Look for the right fit — big versus small, city versus suburban. Know that money will play a factor. “Who accepts you does not define you as a person,” Fiorito said.

To all of us: Integrity and character matter more than the diploma on the office wall. “You’re going to find your place,” Fiorito said. “You’re going to end up at a fine place that’s going to work for you, and you’ll have so many other opportunities that other people don’t have.”