Doing the Right Thing: The challenge of helping our students stay honest in the college process
Jeffrey C. Makris is the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology's first Director of College Counseling. He served as the Director of College Counseling at the High School of Economics and Finance since 2004 after beginning his school counseling career there in 1999 as a guidance counselor. Jeffrey has been active in the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling, and the College Access Consortium of New York, Inc. In June of 2009 he completed a three -year term on the Executive Board of NYSACAC as Co-Chair of the School - College Relations Committee, and in June of 2011 he was awarded the NYSACAC Distinguished Service Award. In July of 2012 he completed his term as Chair of CACNY, Inc.'s Board of Directors after serving on the Board for four years. For five years Jeffrey taught Counseling the College Bound Student, a graduate level course introducing students to the college counseling profession, for the University of California, Los Angeles through the UCLA Extension program. He earned his BS in Psychology from Binghamton University, S.U.N.Y. and his MSEd in School Counseling from Hunter College, C.U.N.Y.
My wife is not really into football; you can blame the perennial struggles of her hometown Cleveland Browns for that. But even she was compelled to watch CNN’s coverage of “Deflate-Gate,” in which the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots have been accused, not for the first time, of cheating. In this case, they are accused of deflating footballs presumably to aid the players’ ability to throw and catch.
It’s just interesting stuff…a stellar team with a celebrity quarterback and legendary coach caught trying to get a miniscule advantage in a playoff game in which they were heavily favored. No one truly believes the outcome of that game was affected by this gridiron crime, but reputations will be tarnished just the same, and if the Pats win the Superbowl, the Vince Lombardi Trophy will shine just a little less brightly.
So why would someone do something so stupid? The incident makes me think about cheating, ethics and, inevitably, my own students.
NFL games involve millions of dollars and intense pressure on almost everyone involved. Pressure is, of course, not limited to the world of sports. I write this on the last day of classes of the first semester. Students, some of whom are very much at-risk to graduate in June, race to hand in late assignments or projects before it is really too late.
I received an email from an English teacher this morning: three students were caught plagiarizing a major essay assignment. Similarly, I discovered that another teacher found a top-performing student’s final exam stolen, and several periods later, other students are miraculously performing better than anticipated on the very same exam.
I speak with the first of the students caught plagiarizing. Whatever disciplinary action may come, I need to make sure he understands how seriously plagiarism is treated at the post-secondary level. His face drops as he starts to see that this is a bigger deal than he first thought.
The shame of it all is that he is perfectly capable of writing a fine essay on his own. So why did he do it? We know the answer. Students fall behind for any number of reasons, ranging from silly to completely legitimate, then panic when they see the deadline approaching.
It’s All About the Money
It’s now late January, so like every college counselor, I am swamped with students filing FAFSAs, the PROFILE, and TAP applications. I have files full of 1040s and W2 forms. When it comes to financial aid for college, students like mine feel the pressure as much as anyone. We all know that college costs can be astronomical and that government grant aid can only go so far. A misguided teen and his parents can easily rack up six-digit debt before the student’s 21st birthday.
My fellow blogger Sandy did an excellent job highlighting some of the many ways in which families mistakenly (or knowingly) misrepresent their situations when applying for financial aid: disappearing parents, multiple heads of the household, mysterious dependents, etc. It can be frustrating to try to work with families when they are actively trying to cheat the system; it puts them at risk, your school or organization at risk, and your professional reputation at risk. And they may even be gaining an unfair advantage over your other students, as in the case with competitive EOP/HEOP programs.
But how can we not empathize with the pressure they are feeling? For every one private college that meets full financial need through grants and scholarships, there are 100 that can’t (or won’t) come anywhere close to doing so. SUNY becomes harder to afford each year and while CUNY costs remain relatively low, this is little consolation to those families who dreamed of a residential experience outside of New York City.
Coaching with Integrity
Few experiences provoke as much anxiety as the college admissions process. There is pressure to get admitted, pressure to find money, pressure to stay on top of grades, and more. A little pressure may be a good thing to motivate those who need more incentive. But too much pressure can create a host of problems, including dishonest behavior from the students we serve. So how do we try to promote ethical behavior?
As you may have guessed, I find it is helpful to take the pressure off. Where one goes to college is not truly a life-or-death decision. Committed students can get a good education at a host of schools, and they are not doomed if they begin at a community college. With CUNY and/or some good decision making, no student needs to borrow $200,000.
I emphasize these points with students. I remind them that the long term consequences of their behavior can outweigh the benefits. I also try to practice what I preach: doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even when it’s hard. I am pleased to say that often students respond to these efforts and end up going about their college process with integrity.
Perhaps, one day, one of these kids will head up north to help straighten things out in that New England Patriots clubhouse.
How do you help your students to behave ethically in their college and financial aid application process?