The recent college admissions scandal — that gross, hydra-headed monster involving enormous bribes, test-taking ringers and fake photos of teenagers “playing” sports they never even tried — has mesmerized many Westport parents and students.
Plenty of educational consultants too.
Richard Avitabile has seen both sides of the process. He’s directed college admissions offices. Since 2002 he’s been a counselor with Steinbrecher & Partners, the Westport-based group that helps students from around the globe make appropriate educational choices — not just for college, but secondary school, therapeutic programs and graduate options as well.
He’s a parent, too.
“This is so entwined with how our society thinks about education, college and success. It’s opened a Pandora’s box,” Avitabile says of the arrest of 50 adults — including the mastermind of the long-running scam — earlier this month.
“This story makes us all wonder what we’ve been doing with our professional careers.”
Yet he is wary of painting all educational consultants with the same brush.
“The goal of independent counselors is to help kids negotiate a complex process, and find a way to succeed,” he says.
“At our core, we’ve always felt that students’ hard work, and the interests they’ve developed, have been the reason for their success.”
After the news broke, he spoke with colleagues across the country. They believe the scandal involves “a very small number of applicants, and a very small number of colleges and universities.”
But because of the sensational nature of the offenses — along with the money and Big Names involved — the story has legs.
“Most students get good grades and work on their test scores without having someone do it for them,” Avitabile notes. “We tell them, ‘develop your own life, and chances are good you’ll have great opportunities and options for college.'”
What Rick Singer, his clients and a few coaches and unscrupulous educators have done “devalues the worth of students,” says Avitabile. “These parents somehow felt they had to rig the system for their kids. I don’t think those families had to do that.
“I’ve spent a lot of time telling families there are opportunities, without playing this game. You can find the right college for your child. We’ve helped them do that for years.”
It’s not easy, he admits. Educational consultants help people with means (and plenty of pro bono clients) through the long process.
Steinbrecher & Partners — and many other educational consultants — often assist families who lack the financial or other resources that well-heeled clients have. “We truly enjoy working with students who are eager for an education, helping match them to a school that’s right for them,” Avitabile says.
He is not surprised that some people try to use the system for their own ends. He is, however, dismayed that Singer — someone he calls “not an educational professional” — developed “a band of people who helped others commit fraud. They were not helping students through the process. They were thieves.”
Parents often ask Avitabile and his colleagues, “how can I be sure my child is admitted to [insert name or type of school]?”
“We spent a lot of time explaining that there are no guarantees,” he says. “At some schools 75% of the applicants are qualified, but fewer than 10% get in.”
So his message to students (and parents) is: “Develop who you are, in and out of the classroom. Pursue experiences that interest you. Work on talents or activities that fit your personality and goals. Don’t do something because it’s what you think a college wants. Become the person you are proud of, then find the places that meet your characteristics.”
After 17 years as an educational consultant — and 3 decades before that in college admissions — Avitabile is convinced that many families can make excellent decisions about college.
“I love it when a student takes the lead, and parents support the goals their child has for education,” he says. “Our thrust from the beginning is to put students in charge.
“If we listen to them, we can avoid bad intentions. Students can achieve what they want without illegal actions.”