Mason Lecky Addresses the College Admissions Scandal

A message to the StC community from Mason Lecky and Jim Jump
Dear St. Christopher’s Community,

It has now been nearly four weeks since news broke of the college admissions scandal in which federal prosecutors charged 50 parents in a complex bribery scheme with the ultimate objective of securing enrollment for their children in some of the nation’s most selective universities. For many of us, the reaction to this development was one of disbelief, shock that parents and coaches, alleged educators, would stoop to such criminal lows. For others, the news came as affirmation of what now appears evident to anyone paying attention to college-admissions realities these days—the stakes have gotten so high, the competition for enrollment at selective colleges and universities so fierce, that very little is out-of-bounds for some parents desperate to clear a path for their children. Increasingly, this path includes enrollment at a brand-name school, one with decreasing admissions rates and, thus, increasing cachet.

It is a mathematical reality that over the past several decades the nation’s most selective colleges and universities have increased the size of their applicant pool at rates higher than any increases to the size of their student body. Consider that, according to US News & World Report, just 25 years ago there were approximately 20 colleges admitting fewer than 33% of its applicants; today the number is more than 75. Increased selectivity means more denial decisions each spring, which increases anxiety among students and parents, which often can lead to even higher numbers of applications to a broader number of schools, and the cycle continues. This “new normal” is understandably disorienting and frustrating to a generation of parents (myself included!) accustomed to “old normals” of just a generation ago.

Thankfully, there are other mathematical realities at play, ones much closer to home here at St. Christopher’s, that should be considered and that do provide comfort. Of note, nearly 70% of all applications submitted by St. Christopher’s seniors result in acceptances. Further, over the past two years, 25% of our seniors apply to only one school and earn acceptance there, either through a binding Early Decision path or through an athletic commitment. The remaining 75% of seniors most typically apply to five or six colleges, most often resulting in three to five acceptances.

Thus, a “typical” St. Christopher’s student will, at this precise moment of his senior year, be in the enviable position of deciding between three, four, or even five college acceptances. Yes, he may have suffered the sting of one or two waitlist decisions or even denials—practice, perhaps, for life’s inevitable successes and setbacks.

Moreover, and beyond any of the realities presented here or brought to light in last month’s college admissions scandal, we must emphasize that at St. Christopher’s, we care most about preparing your sons for a lifetime of intellectual, social, and emotional success. As a college preparatory school with a long history of sending our boys to a broad and impressive collection of universities around the world, we, of course, care about the four years our boys will spend just after their time with us. However, that care pales in comparison to our concern over the choices and impact our graduates make throughout the long duration of their lives.

“What kind of man will this student be in his 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond?” This is the question I hear asked by our faculty and staff far more often than, “I wonder what choice he will make for his undergraduate studies?” As a school with well over 100 years of history, we focus on the long game—for our institution and for your sons. Further, as stated in our philosophy of education, “We care most about educating young men who possess honor and integrity.” That intentional prioritization pays no mind to college acceptance rates or even college-name prestige.

Roughly one week after the scandal made headline news, our Director of College Counseling Jim Jump crafted a thorough, thoughtful, and informed letter on his reaction to the news. I offer you that letter, below, as well as my thanks for the trust and care you extend to us, knowing that we will do everything in our power to shape long and fulfilling lives of purpose for your sons.

Mason Lecky
Head of School


A Message from Jim Jump, Director of College Counseling and Upper School Academic Dean

Dear Parents, 
While all of us were trying to get some rest and relaxation on Spring Break last week, news broke that 50 people had been indicted in federal court as part of a criminal conspiracy aimed at obtaining admission to elite universities including Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, Wake Forest, and the University of Southern California. The scheme is too complex to explain in detail, but wealthy parents worked with an unscrupulous independent college consultant to cheat on standardized tests and to bribe college coaches for their children to be admitted as recruited walk-ons in a variety of sports, most of which the children had never played.
Oscar Wilde reportedly said that “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Tragedy is the wrong word—last week’s Ethiopian plane crash and shootings in New Zealand are true tragedies. In any case those of us who wish the college admissions process received more attention from the media and the public got our wish.
A common refrain in the numerous articles and discussions of the scandal discussions last week was the notion that this case is just an extension of other attempts by the wealthy and privileged to secure advantage for their children in the college admissions process. It isn’t. What we have here is a sophisticated, even cunning, criminal enterprise far beyond anything we’ve seen before.
This sordid episode provides an opportunity to think about the bigger issues and principles that should guide the college search and admissions processes:
1)  The college process is first and foremost a journey of self-discovery for a student, a chance to think about who he is, what his talents and strengths are, what he cares about, and what he wants from his life after St. Christopher’s. That journey is more important than the college destination.
2)  The college process is harder on parents than students. It tests your basic beliefs both about life (is it fair or is it a game?) and about parenting (is your job to help your child become independent or to prevent disappointment?). It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that where your child goes to college is a measure of your success as a parent, and all of us are prone to worry that there is something we should be doing.
3)  Getting into college should be a source of pride and accomplishment for a student. What is most disturbing is that many of the parents in this case took illegal actions behind their children’s backs, demonstrating a lack of trust in their children being able to get in to college on their own.
4)  A college education is an experience rather than a brand or a status symbol. Last week’s scandal was based in part on the false belief that going to an elite college is the key to success and happiness. St. Christopher’s goal is to help every student find the right college fit.
5)  A number of years ago long-time Harvard Dean of Admissions Bill Fitzsimmons said during a visit to Richmond that the admissions process is rational, but may not seem fair. Colleges and universities are complex institutions with complex strategic goals, and they use the admissions process to help them achieve those goals. The better an applicant helps them achieve those goals, the better his or her chances of admission. Nevertheless, year in and year out 75-80% of students nationally are admitted to their first choice college.
6)  You don’t need to hire an outside college consultant (you may certainly choose to, but you don’t need to). St. Christopher’s has a dedicated, experienced college counseling staff, and we are committed to helping every boy and his family navigate what can be a confusing process. We believe that the decision is an important developmental milestone and that the student should take ownership to the degree he is capable, with parents and college counselors working together in a support role.
As I read the accounts of last week’s scandal, I was glad—and proud—to work at St. Christopher’s. I have been told multiple times by folks at colleges and other independent schools that our students are more knowledgeable about the college process, and our parents more calm and rational, than at other schools. St. Christopher’s is a school that reveres tradition, and that’s a tradition I hope we will maintain.
Jim Jump
Director of College Counseling and Upper School Academic Dean