Personal Finance

Getting your kid into college: Where to draw the line when offering help

Key Points
  • Operation Varsity Blues, the recent college admissions scandal, has shone a spotlight on the length some parents will go to help their kids.
  • Stress and fear may contribute to parents crossing the line, yet there are clear ethics about what they should do.
  • For example, they can advise on the essay, but not edit or write any part of it, experts say.
Students on campus of Yale University
Yana Paskova/Getty Images

These days, it seems some parents are willing to do whatever it takes to get their kids into what they think is the "right" college.

While cheating and bribing, which are core allegations in the recent Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, is a clear no-no, other parental "help" — such as editing, writing or rewriting an application essay — is becoming more common.

Part of the problem is that the process of applying to college is confusing — and competitive, particularly for the most selective universities, said Elizabeth Heaton, vice president of educational counseling at Bright Horizons' College Coach.

"People let the stress of it push them to do things that in their heart of hearts they know is not right," she said. "They justify it by saying everyone is doing it.

"I'm telling you that they are not."

Then there is the so-called helicopter parent, who is trying to protect their child from any pain.

"Parents have too much invested in their kids," said Mark Sklarow, CEO of Independent Educational Consultants Association. "They want to put the name-brand sticker in the back window of the family car.

"They give more thought to getting into the name-brand university than they do in the appropriateness of the school."

Ethics expert Andrew Cullison said several things come into play when parents consider breaking the rules.

They "may be justifying this, in part, because they think there is something broken about the system," said Cullison, director of The Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University.

There is so much evidence that where you go matters so much less in terms of your career than what you do once you get there.
Mark Sklarow
Independent Educational Consultants Association

For example, they may suspect the college isn't playing by the rules, either — such as accepting legacy students over someone who might be better qualified, he said. Also, if they think SAT scores aren't a good indicator of a student's ability, parents may convince themselves that the college is using a broken metric, he said.

In fact, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans thinks the college admissions process is "generally fair," according to a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll of 1,000 registered voters. Of those surveyed, 67 percent said it favors the "rich and powerful."

How much is too much help?

Before you even think about writing your child's essay, whether it is a couple of sentences or the entire thing, remember that colleges are looking at them to understand the student and are not seeking the most polished writing, Sklarow said.

"If an essay sounds like it is written by a 44-year-old professional woman, it is not going to read like it was written by a 17-year-old boy," he said. "It is going to be an essay that doesn't capture the admission office.

"They've become pros at it," Sklarow added. "They can tell what's being written by a teen or parents or uncles or friends."

Schools can also rescind an admission if they determine the student wasn't truthful or accurate on the application, he added. Yale University just rescinded the admission of one of the students involved in the admissions scandal. The University of Southern California also blocked students linked to the scheme from registering for classes and getting their transcripts.

Writing your child's essay can also hurt the very person you are trying to help.

"What they are saying to their child is, 'I don't trust you to speak for yourself. I'm going to do the talking for you' and that's a terrible message to send," Bright Horizons' Heaton said.

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels weighs in on the college admissions scandal

So, what is appropriate?

Sklarow said students should get all the help they can in figuring out the topic of the essay.

"They should get help without a red pen getting involved," he said. That can mean reading an essay and offering advice on how it can be improved.

The bottom line: Think about the appropriate school for your child, which may not necessarily be an Ivy League institution or the most selective college.

"There is so much evidence that where you go matters so much less in terms of your career than what you do once you get there," Sklarow pointed out.

And remember, your kid is perfectly capable of doing their own applications.

"People have been getting into college since college existed," Heaton said. "They have gone to school for 12-plus years.

"They can do it if you let them take control of the process."

—CNBC's Emma Newburger contributed to this report.

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