By Fred Alvarez, College Counselor
A wooden sign stamped with the word “Integrity” sits over the entrance to Wallace Burr Hall, the first and main academic building at the Upper Campus.
That is a fitting place for it as that sentiment serves as a watchword for all we do, guiding the way we want students — and all who help shape them at Ojai Valley School — to conduct themselves in the classroom, on the athletic field and in all aspects of learning.
As news of a college admissions scandal broke this week, directing a harsh light on the lengths to which wealthy and influential parents have gone in recent years to secure spots for their children in some of the nation’s most competitive universities, that guiding principle has never been more important.
At OVS, the mission of the College Counseling Office is to provide guidance to students and their families as they navigate the complex landscape of college admissions, starting in the freshman year and leading all the way through senior year as students fill out applications, write essays and ultimately decide where to attend.
We do so with great energy and enthusiasm, in small classroom settings and during one-on-one counseling sessions. We offer this support during the academic day, after hours, on weekends and during the summer. We do so via email and text, with parents present and without, in the months well before applications are due and in the hours just before deadlines expire.
And we do so ethically and with integrity.
We focus on helping our students gain access to those “right fit” colleges and universities that are going to fuel their ambitions, sharpen their talents and shape their futures. But we never cheat. And we go to great lengths to ensure that, while providing our students with all the tools and direction they need, they persevere through this process in a principled, upright manner.
It appears there were no principles for the parents caught in the current scandal. Rather, their moral compasses went awry as they reportedly set out to buy the help of those who could game the system when it came to admissions to some of the most prestigious universities, including Yale, Stanford, USC and many others.
They are charged with paying millions in a scheme that involved hiring people to falsify SAT results, wrongfully secure accommodations for standardized testing and bribe coaches to fraudulently recruit their children for sports at which they had no college-level expertise.
At OVS, we have taken steps to ensure that the testing and college application process is as transparent and aboveboard as possible. We mandate that all students take the SAT or the ACT at the Upper Campus in their junior year as a way of establishing a baseline score and to ensure students are who they say they are when they take these exams.
This requirement eliminates the potential for cheating, as our test coordinator and SAT/ACT proctors are comprised of OVS faculty who know well the identity of their students. Indeed, there should be little need for students to take the SAT or ACT outside of OVS as we are a host campus for both exams twice a year.
At the center of this week’s scandal is a for-profit college consultant to whom parents paid millions of dollars to bribe coaches and college administrators to help admit undeserving students. The consultant set up a business that helped students, apparently unbeknownst to them, cheat on standardized tests and submit fabricated profiles with their applications that touted achievements they had not attained.
In the past, we have not discouraged families from working with private college counselors. But it remains to be seen in light of this bribery scheme how the role of such agents will be viewed by colleges in the future.
Either way, we want students to take ownership of their application process. That includes making sure they develop (with the help of their families and college counselor, of course) their own college lists, fill out applications themselves and write their own college essays. We help with it all, but we don’t do the work for them. And neither should anyone else.
Those are the values we instill and expect in the classroom, and they are no different than what should happen in the college counseling process.
Fred Alvarez teaches Humanities, AP World History, and serves as the College Counselor at the Upper Campus. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.