In “Breaking Home Ties,” the cover that he painted for the Sept. 25, 1954 Saturday Evening Post, Norman Rockwell went out of his way to capture the anxiety that a family experienced when a son or daughter gained admission to college. “Breaking Home Ties” shows a son and father, along with the family dog, sitting beside a farm truck waiting for the train that will take the son to college. The father, who slumps forward and is dressed in work clothes, is a portrait in sadness. His son, wearing an ill-fitting suit, looks over his father’s shoulder and seems lost in his own thoughts.
Even if Norman Rockwell’s style of painting were to become popular again, it’s hard to imagine a picture like “Breaking Home Ties” appearing on the cover of any of the many recent books on the struggle to get into college. What makes families anxious about college admission these days is not the threat of fraying family ties but a son or daughter not getting into the “right” school—be it an Ivy League college or a flagship state university.
In the early 1950s, when Rockwell’s picture takes place, just graduating from college was by itself a singular achievement. In 1952 only 8.3 percent of men and 5.8 percent of women had completed college compared to 35.4 percent of men and 36.6 percent of women today. Rockwell’s freshman seems sure to end up better off than his farmer father, and in going to an in-state college (there is a small State U pennant on his suitcase), he is doing what is expected of him; 96 percent of public school students and 80 percent of private school students did that in the 1950s.
Today’s first-year college students would think they were lucky if they had as few worries as Rockwell’s freshman. He was bound for college in an era in which in the middle 1950s Harvard admitted 48 percent of its freshman applicants as compared to only 3.43 percent of the applicants to its class of 2025.
The pressures today’s students endure are more intense than ever, and they are captured in two of the best recent books on college admissions: Nicole LaPorte’s Guilty Admissions, her study of what came to be known as the varsity blues college cheating scandal, and Ron Lieber’s The Price You Pay for College, a guidebook for families struggling to figure out how to afford college.
The college struggle that LaPorte and Lieber portray is emotionally draining for families as well as expensive, and the current college admissions season, now underway, promises no relief. The cost of four years at a state university is over $100,000 in many parts of the country and over $300,000 at any number of selective private colleges.
The central figure in Guilty Admissions (which lacks a much-needed index) is William ”Rick” Singer, an independent college counselor based in California. Singer used bribery and fake athletic profiles to create a multimillion dollars empire for himself that resulted in his students being admitted to universities ranging from Yale to Georgetown. Singer’s well-off clients included the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, both of whom served short prison terms for the roles they played in Singer’s fraud schemes.
Much of the story Guilty Admissions tells has become widely known through investigative news reports. What LaPorte adds to our understanding is her research on how many willing accomplices Singer had. His schemes didn’t involve just a few bad apples—a corrupt coach here, a greedy admissions director there—taking bribes, but a whole range of educators and consultants with their hands out.
No scheme was too outlandish for Singer to try. In the case of Lori Laughlin’s daughters, who got into the University of Southern California as crew recruits despite never being on a crew team, Singer instructed Loughlin and her husband to send USC a photo of their daughter Bella on a rowing machine “in workout clothes like a real athlete.”
Neither Singer nor the Hollywood stars who became his clients are people most parents identify with, but the circumstances that led Singer and his wealthy clients to play fast and loose with the college admission process are a familiar story. As far as LaPorte is concerned, the current obsession with the getting into the right college is not simply a reflection of the fears of wildly ambitious parents. She links the current striving for admission to the right college as an extension of the growing wealth divide in America. Parents no longer regard an ordinary college degree as a sufficient guarantee that their children will be able to lead comfortable lives. That guarantee, especially in the eyes of better-off parents, now starts with a degree from an elite college, and they expect their son’s or daughter’s secondary school and its admissions counselor to pave the way for entry into an elite college.
What are concerned parents who want to play by the rules supposed to do in this situation? In The Price You Pay for College Ron Lieber, a personal financial columnist for The New York Times tries to answer the questions that are most likely to come up.
How can families begin to save enough for college? Lieber carefully analyzes the government’s 529 college saving plans, which allow families to put away college money free from federal and state taxes.
How do students find out how much money they can expect to make when they graduate? Lieber advises them to turn to the College Scorecard, which the U.S. Department of Education maintains online for every school.
What is the best way to shop for a college? Lieber recommends not only a visit, but an overnight stay that allows a prospective student to see the unregulated social life of a school.
At a time when the average high school guidance counselor is dealing with 482 students, Lieber’s practical advice is a good starting point. He acknowledges the pressures he and his family felt struggling to pay for his Amherst education, and he wants to do right by families in a similar position. “Success here means knowing how the system works and who pays for what and why,” Lieber writes.
That advice is true as far as it goes, but it still leaves enormous hurdles in place for families. For many parents the standard financial-aid form, the Free Application for Federal Students Aid (FAFSA), which is scheduled for shortening in 2022, is difficult to complete. Then come standardized tests, which can be helpful for a student in a high school that a college does not know, but which all too often mirror family income. Finally, even need-based aid can be difficult to obtain for poor families. They are not just competing against one another at colleges with limited endowments. Colleges are increasingly using their finances to offer discounts—known as merit aid—to upper-middle-class and wealthy students they think might otherwise go to a rival college.
The COVID-19 crisis has added to these hurdles, especially in the case of students from high schools that have had difficulty managing online teaching. For these students, postponing their college applications for a year is a possibility, but that decision can provide only temporary relief. In the end, there is no escaping the consequences that follow when a student skips college and misses out on the lifetime financial benefits of a college degree.
As Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz of the Research and Statistics Group of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York point out in a June 5, 2019, article cited by Lieber, in recent years the average college graduate with just a bachelor’s degree earned $78,000 annually compared to $45,000 for the average worker with only a high school diploma.
The college admission struggle does not end, moreover, with graduation. For students who have taken out loans to pay for college, the benefits of getting a higher education often come with a crushing downside. Student debt stands at $1.4 trillion nationally, and for many the debt has become a burden that makes it difficult to buy a house or start a family. The Brookings Institute estimates that 40 percent of the students who entered college in 2004 may default on their student loans by 2023.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial.