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When Georgia mom Stacie Francombe heard the news that the FBI is charging over 40 people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, in a widespread, $25 million college entrance exam cheating scandal, she called details of the charges "beyond disgraceful."
For Francombe, who has a high school junior who strives to excel at both academics and sports, it's unfathomable that the parents named in the case paid thousands of dollars to get their children into elite colleges under the guise of athletic recruitment.
But in a day and age when the college admissions process feels like such a high stakes endeavor, other parents told TODAY Parents this kind of cheating feels almost inevitable.
The FBI report describes a litany of illegal and illicit transactions between parents, college coaches, test administrators, and an independent college counselor that led to students gaining admission to universities like Stanford, Yale, and the University of Southern California with test scores they did not earn and as recruited athletes in sports some of the students had never played.
"This really isn't so surprising," said Princeton, New Jersey, mom Julie Zimmerman, who said that in her community, "You see how consumed families get with the college process and the lengths they will go to help their kids into school — tutors, extracurriculars, SAT classes, fighting for grades, internships, etc."
Zimmerman, who has a college freshman and a high school sophomore, said, "Add extreme wealth to this formula, and this was bound to happen. There certainly are many ways people think they can and should work the system, and Benjamins has always been one of them."
Test prep and college admissions tutoring company The Princeton Review’s 2019 College Hopes & Worries Survey released earlier this month confirms the pressure and stress inherent to the college admissions process for American families.
Not coincidentally, several of the colleges mentioned in the FBI's report are on parents' top ten list of "dream colleges" for their children, according to the survey results. The 2,618 parents who responded this year ranked Stanford as their number one "dream college" for their children, along with Ivies Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, and Yale and flagship state universities like the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Michigan.
Of the almost 12,000 parents and students who participated in the survey, 73 percent reported a "high" stress level about the college admissions process. Standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, or AP exams, were named the toughest part of the process by 37 percent of respondents.
California mom Tanya Vawter has a sophomore at Sonoma State University and a senior going through the college admissions process this spring. She says the college admission process is "out of control."
"It's gotten to the point that unless your kids maintains a 4.0 GPA, they are left feeling like they have no chance to get into a decent college," she told TODAY Parents. "It's beyond stressful for everyone involved."
Because of that stress, said Vawter, "I really don't blame those parents who participated in this scam. They had the money and opportunity to help their kids. What parent wouldn't? Does it make me angry? Of course, as this makes it even harder for my kid. But I don't blame those parents; I blame the system, which needs to be completely overhauled."
Parenting and child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa told TODAY Parents that when parents give in to their own anxiety and desperation over college admissions, they really end up damaging their children more than they help them.
"In essence, these parents are saying, 'You can't do this. You're not good enough — not for these schools, and not for us, your family,'" she said.
"They're teaching their teens terrible lessons of entitlement, of cheating, of lying, but — and maybe even worse — of their own unworthiness," she added. "Even if they tell their children that the problem is the college admissions system and not the student, they're still undermining their confidence, and competence — two necessary ingredients for happiness."
The result, said Kim Digilio, a California mother of two who once worked in admissions at Princeton University and now strives to help both teens and adults find inner peace through guided meditation, is that parents send a clear but perhaps unintended message to their children:
"They are only as good as their college sweatshirt."