College admissions scandal irks area high school students

ADDISON COUNTY — When federal prosecutors announced last week that they had indicted at least 50 people — many of them quite wealthy — for conspiring to influence college admissions decisions through fraudulent means, Chessley Jackman, a 12th-grader at Mount Abraham Union High School, was still waiting to hear back about her own college applications.
“I think that this whole college admissions cheating scandal has come out at a really ironic time,” the New Haven resident said. “The majority of college-bound seniors are in the midst of hearing back from their dream schools and this really only adds to the anxiety of it all.”
For students applying to more competitive schools, the admissions process already feels like a game of roulette, she said. Knowing that the odds have been stacked in favor of a privileged few just makes everyone else feel hopeless.
“If anything, it has just confirmed the idea to me that it’s a game and there’s nothing you can do to secure your spot anywhere,” Jackman said.
Across the county, students, educators and advisers are struggling to come to terms with reports detailing a system that its creator, a self-styled “college admissions counselor,” has called a “side door” for college admissions — one that involves cheating on tests, fake athletic profiles and millions of dollars changing hands under the table.
Middlebury resident Sophie Poppenga is also waiting to hear back from colleges. The Middlebury Union High School senior says she’s disgusted but not particularly surprised.
“In history, many wealthy and entitled people seem to buy their place rather than working their way there,” she said. “These families are taking away another kid’s chance at an education.”
For Poppenga, too, the timing just stinks.
“Senior year is supposed to be a few months to think about my future and take pride in my work. But (instead) I’m thinking about how my place could easily (be) taken by someone with more money than me or someone whose parents are willing to hand them a future instead of having them do the work.”
Maeve McGuiness, who lives in Monkton and was primarily homeschooled, also thinks the whole process is unfair.
“Having gone through the application process for a few competitive art colleges, I have a good understanding of how long and exhausting the process can be,” she said. “For the average person applying to college there are a lot of hoops to jump through, from studying for and taking the SATs/ACTs to writing essays and putting together portfolios.”
She always figured there might be wealthier people paying their way into prestigious colleges, she said, but having it confirmed has felt a bit discouraging.
“It’s unfair for wealthy people to bribe and lie their way into a school and take up space and resources meant for others who have worked hard and actually deserve it. I hope that having this scandal exposed, and the repercussions the people involved face, (will) serve as a lesson to anyone thinking of cheating their way into college,” McGuiness said.
High school students aren’t alone in their indignation.
Michele Hernandez Bayliss of Weybridge is co-principal of Top Tier Admissions, a consulting firm that works with students and their families to increase college admissions odds.
“I think (students) should be outraged,” Hernandez Bayliss said in an interview with the Independent. “I have to say I was pretty shocked. It was pretty brazen.”
For her the incident highlights a college admissions system marred by longstanding inequities.
“We’ve had legacy admissions,” she said, referring to students whose parents went to a school. “We’ve had recruited athletes. Forty-five to 50 percent of the spots at elite schools for a number of years have been taken up by ‘hooked’ kids. It’s not like it started from a perfectly fair process.”
Top Tier charges $80,000 to begin working with 8th-grade students, Hernandez Bayliss said, but pointed out that other firms have charged up to $1.5 million for similar services.
“We don’t want to gouge.”
She attributed Top Tier’s success in part to a long track record of ethical practices, which has led to client loyalty. In the wake of the cheating revelations, hundreds of former clients have contacted the company with messages of support, she said.
“In that way, it’s been great for business,” she said.
Few Addison County families can afford Hernandez Bayliss’s services, however.
On their behalf, local schools are doing everything they can with their limited resources to help students reach their post-secondary goals.
“For me, the key takeaway from this story is that there were no admissions officers or high school guidance counselors involved,” said Sarah Soule, the post-secondary planning coordinator at MUHS.
In the only position of its kind in the state, Soule, who has 38 years of admissions experience, works with students who want to go to college or start a career or are considering taking a gap year.
“We offer strong support to college-bound seniors at MUHS,” she said.
The school pays for SAT workshops, so students can take them for free, and it arranges for the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation to help students develop a financial plan for attending college.
MUHS does not, however, refer students to outside admissions consulting firms.
“Parents wishing to hire them are welcome to pursue them on their own,” Soule said.
Because of their school’s proximity to Middlebury College, MUHS students can also take advantage of MiddCAM, a one-on-one mentorship program that pairs college students with high school juniors and seniors.
So far the full program is available only in Middlebury, but a new drop-in program at Mount Abe was launched this semester, said MiddCAM Co-presidents Lily Massaro and Conner Gilbert.
At Vergennes Union High School, the scandal has changed nothing about the way student support services are delivered.
“I have not fielded any questions or comments from students or parents about this news,” said Jay Stetzel, director of school counseling and student programming at VUHS. “We aren’t doing anything differently, as we always support students striving to meet their goals.”
It’s sad that the people involved in the scandal felt the need to resort to cheating, he said.
“But I’m even more disappointed that institutions of higher learning appear to have accepted these bribes and granted students acceptance who hadn’t properly earned this acceptance.”
Despite the discouraging aspects of recent revelations, local students are trying to look on the bright side.
“It’s reinforced the idea that I’ve recently come to that I can be successful wherever I land,” Jackman said.
McGuiness, too, feels confident about where she is.
“Hearing about this does make me take a little more pride in having made my way to college acceptances the honest way!”
Editor’s note: Reporter John Flowers contributed to this story.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
CLARIFICATION: We noted above that admissions counseling services that cost $80,000 and up would not be affordable to many residents of Addison County (where median annual income is close to $62,000) only to make the distinction that those who cheated on admissions live in a different world than most of our local readers. We didn’t make it clear that Michele Hernandez Bayliss, who runs Top Tier Admissions, has not only provided reduced-price or pro-bono services to help a dozen local kids prepare for college tests and applications but she served for many years on local school boards lending her time and expertise to improve our schools.

Share this story:

More News
US Probation Office Uncategorized

US Probation Office Request for Proposals

US Probation Office 2×1.5 062024 RFP

Middlebury American Legion Uncategorized

Middlebury American Legion Annual Meeting

Middlebury American Legion 062024 1×1.5 Annual Meeting

Sports Uncategorized

MAV girls’ lax nets two triumphs

The Mount Abraham-Vergennes cooperative girls’ lacrosse team moved over .500 with a pair o … (read more)

Share this story: