Ethical College Admissions: What Parents Won't Accept

Even at the best of schools, there are some things a parent doesn't want to hear, writes Jim Jump.

July 8, 2019

The psychologist Michael Thompson once wrote an article in which he described the college admissions process as a “failed rite of passage.” He observed that “it can make normal people act nutty, and nutty people act quite crazy.”

In the light of current events, that characterization seems timid and understated. Several items in the news this spring and summer raise the very real possibility that college admission, or at least the mania to attend an “elite” college, has become a contagion, the kind of mysterious, infectious force found in movies such as The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak, And the Band Played On and, of course, Contagion.

The Operation Varsity Blues scandal is the poster child. The lengths to which desperate, wealthy parents were willing to go to obtain “side-door” admission for their children is equal parts criminal, crazy and disturbing. The scandal is undoubtedly “soon to be a major motion picture,” but Hollywood is missing the boat if it doesn’t do a science fiction treatment with the villain a virus that attacks character and good judgment.

If only Operation Varsity Blues were an isolated example. In the past month there have been two news items that seem to support the notion that there is a college admissions-related contagion in the air around Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. Sidwell is one of the nation’s best schools, the alma mater of celebrities ranging from Charles Lindbergh to Sasha and Malia Obama to Bill Nye, the science guy.

The first was an Atlantic Monthly article detailing the toxic college admissions climate at Sidwell Friends during the past school year that led two of the school’s three college counselors to leave and the head of school to write a pointed and remarkable letter to senior parents. The letter declared that the school would no longer permit or respond to the following behaviors: parents recording meetings with college counselors, parents calling the school from blocked phone numbers and anonymous allegations about behavior of students to sabotage college applications. The letter hints at a culture, whether school or parent, that has lost control and all sense of proportion with regard to college admission.

It might not be an isolated case. Several weeks ago the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal related to college admission filed by a 2014 graduate of Sidwell Friends and her parents against the school.

Reading the facts of the case is depressing and calls to mind the famous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” In 2016 Dayo Adetu and her parents filed a lawsuit in District of Columbia Superior Court alleging that Sidwell Friends had engaged in discriminatory and retaliatory behavior against her following settlement of a discrimination charge filed with the D.C. Office of Human Rights during her junior year. The family had previously filed a similar charge against the school when Adetu’s older sister was a student at the school.

That raises a question. If you believe that a school has discriminated and retaliated against one of your children, why would you continue to enroll your other child?

The dispute began over Adetu’s grades in two math courses. As part of a settlement agreement reached between the two parties, Sidwell Friends agreed to recalculate grades in the two courses without guarantee of a grade change. The school also agreed not to make negative or disparaging statements about the student to any third party.

That was the genesis of the lawsuit and how it relates to college admission. The Adetus sued Sidwell Friends for breach of the agreement based on the fact that Dayo Adetu was the only one of the 126 seniors in her graduating class not to receive at least one unqualified college acceptance, despite applying to 13 colleges and universities. The Adetus interpreted that as proof that Sidwell Friends had sabotaged Dayo’s college process and therefore breached the settlement.

Let’s deconstruct the case from a college counseling lens, beginning with Adetu’s college list. She applied to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Cal Tech, MIT, McGill, the University of Virginia and Spelman. All but one of those colleges and universities are selective enough (UVA for an out-of-state applicant) that no student is guaranteed admission.

Adetu also apparently applied for engineering. That explains the concern about math grades, which placed her in a position where she was initially not recommended for AP Calculus BC, a must for a student to be competitive for good engineering programs. It is also the case that engineering programs are almost always more selective than the university in general.

One of the family’s contentions is that the Sidwell Friends college counseling office gave Adetu a different ranking on the Secondary School Report for the various colleges, with her being rated “excellent” for Spelman and “very good” or “good” at the others. They interpreted that as proof that the school was pushing her to attend the HBCU rather than an Ivy League school.

There are different ways to complete an SSR, but Sidwell’s policy was to rank students on each college’s form compared with other applicants from the school, a legitimate procedure. Based on my experience, Spelman was the best bet of the schools on her list, and I assume the college counselors were worried she might not be accepted at any of the others. I certainly would have been. She apparently ultimately withdrew her Spelman application.

The Adetus’ complaint also cited as evidence of Sidwell disparaging or retaliating against Dayo a reference in a recommendation letter to her Nigerian heritage and a missing SAT subject test score in chemistry on the school test record. In its appeal the family argued that mentioning her heritage created the impression that she was not American (her parents are Nigerian immigrants but she is a citizen), hurting her ability to benefit from affirmative action, but she had acknowledged her heritage in her essays. The test score piece is harder to figure. It would normally be a student’s responsibility to send scores via an official score report.

Several Ivy League track coaches expressed recruiting interest in Dayo, then backed away, leading the Adetus to conclude that someone at Sidwell had poisoned the coaches against her. There is no evidence of that, and it doesn’t ring true. Dayo Adetu ended up being admitted to Penn a year later, where she ran track for a year. She was good enough to be on the team, but her college times suggest that she may not have been enough of a difference maker to get coach support in admission.

The ultimate argument is that Sidwell engaged in “disparate advocacy,” with the family claiming that Sidwell Friends had aggressively promoted the girl to Spelman but not to the other schools on her list. As already stated, the advocacy at Spelman was likely an attempt to ensure an acceptance given the lofty ambitions of her college list. The expectation that college counselors have an obligation or even the opportunity to advocate for students at highly selective colleges is a popular suburban legend among independent school families, perhaps encouraged by school marketing efforts. If that was once a common practice, it no longer is (or there’s an advocacy black market that’s closed to me).

Are the Sidwell Friends cases sign of an impending college counseling crisis? It’s too early to draw conclusions, but this spring a handful of friends who represent the very best of our profession have talked about getting out. The college counseling landscape may be facing its own version of global warming as the myth of prestige meets a new generation of parents and produces more frequent and violent storms. That requires a renewed emphasis on a college admission process built around student health and well-being. Finding a cure requires isolating the contagion.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


Back to Top