A high-profile college admissions cheating scam, evangelical pastors and educators say, should remind students and parents to trust God for their future rather than attempting to manipulate circumstances.
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Yale University was among the elite colleges where wealthy parents allegedly sought to bribe officials in an effort to gain admission for their children.
“It’s really an idol” to equate success in life with admission to an elite college, said Mark Coppenger, a professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who has done campus ministry at Northwestern University and earned a doctor of philosophy from Vanderbilt University.
“It’s nice when you can carry a certain prestigious [label] around,” Coppenger told Baptist Press. “But if you think it’s a go/no-go in life, then you’re sadly mistaken. In fact, I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that with the cost and the ideology of a lot of these prestigious schools, you may come out more damaged and frustrated than if you had gone to a smaller, less prestigious school and had great people to invest in your life.”
Fifty people were charged with federal crimes March 12 for allegedly paying some $25 million in bribes to get their children into colleges like Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, Wake Forest and the University of Southern California, according to media reports. The scheme allegedly involved cheating on standardized tests and paying coaches of low-profile sports like crew and water polo to falsely identify high school students as recruits.
At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents have been charged, according to the Associated Press, including attorneys and Hollywood actresses.
Raymond Yip, a pastor near Stanford, said “there is a lot of pressure placed on students in the Bay Area to perform and achieve.” Many parents who cannot buy admission at elite colleges still “push their children to achieve it through an overload of academics and achievements.”
“But this seems to come at a cost,” said Yip, English language pastor at New Community Baptist Church in Mountain View, Calif. “The pressure is too much, to the point where students cannot handle it, and [some] end up taking their lives.”
Students who get into elite schools, Yip said, sometimes continue to “make success an idol.”
“A child that was once active and engaged in worship of God at church will most likely stop attending church because of the school achievement, and even leave the faith altogether because it has become less ‘relevant,’” Yip told Baptist Press via email. “I have seen it happen to some members of my church.”
The remedy for idolizing academic success, Yip said, is for parents to “make faith in Jesus a high priority” and let everything else “fall into place.”
“Children will see that it is about doing our very best because that is a godly value,” Yip said. “Families will be more focused on serving and considering the needs of others first … trusting that God will open up opportunities for the children, rather than the parents having to manipulate the circumstances to gain a desired outcome for their children.”
Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said the admissions scandal reflects some parents’ “cultural aspiration” for their children to “be a part of the future American elite,” even if attaining that status requires corrupt means.
Yet “Christians understand this to be yet another demonstration of Genesis 3, of human sinfulness, of how human depravity works its way through system after system,” Mohler said March 14 on his podcast The Briefing.
Coppenger saw admittance to an elite university become “an obsession” for many students at the Chicago-area high school his daughter attended while he was a Baptist campus minister at Northwestern and pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. Such an obsession with academic success, he said, continued for some Christian students at Northwestern, who would “get up at dawn and work in the lab” on Sundays, then “run down to the church” for worship and “have lunch with us” before running “right back to the lab in the afternoon.”
Coppenger challenged them to “prove the Lord’s Day” by resting on Sunday to conform to the work-rest rhythm God designed humans to follow.
“I said, ‘Can you just try to trust God to get you through this thing without working full bore seven days a week?’” Coppenger said, adding students need not be “Pharisaical” about refraining from study on Sundays.
With a college education, Coppenger noted, U.S. News & World Report rankings aren’t nearly as important as whether students learn to approach their field from a Christian worldview perspective – which can occur while attending a Christian or secular university.
“A number of these people who are dying to get into the Ivy League setup missed the point of college and life,” Coppenger said.