Consultants Boost College Applications. Is It Wrong to Use One for My Child?

My daughter, currently a junior in high school, is doing well and is ambitious about getting into a good college. She has really only heard about the big names, though, and it seems possible that many smaller, less competitive colleges might be a better fit. I recently signed with a college-consultant company, at a cost of a few thousand dollars, to help us navigate the application process. My daughter is uncomfortable with this and feels that it gives her an unfair advantage other kids don’t have; she says she wants to apply on her own merit. But many kids are using these services, perhaps even more exclusive ones, and some people have an advantage because of personal connections. Also, from what I hear, the college-application process can be overwhelming.

Is it wrong to utilize these services if many other people can’t afford them?— Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

People often forget that most colleges admit most applicants, but it’s notoriously the case that at certain institutions the admissions process has grown crazily competitive. Résumé-building now begins in kindergarten. Affluent parents are in a position to provide a rich learning environment for their children, exposing them to books and expensive cultural experiences, like international trips; then they may send them to private schools or get them tutors over the vacations. They may encourage them to take up certain sports, like lacrosse or fencing, that are played in college but not in many public schools (what if the college needs a lacrosse midfielder?); to play musical instruments (what if the university’s marching band is looking for a saxophonist?); to participate in community service (won’t they want a kid with a conscience?). Some of this is just good parenting; some of it is mere gamesmanship. Either way, the benefits of the better-off tend to build on themselves, contributing to what Daniel Markovits, in “The Meritocracy Trap,” calls “snowball inequality.”

Your daughter’s concern about fairness is commendable. Yet she’s already and irrevocably the beneficiary of her background. That happened when you took her primary and secondary education in hand and gave her a bunch of middle-class advantages. If the issue is that you’ve been born on a high floor, declining to wear heels isn’t the best response.

What complicates matters is that, as a parent, you are not only entitled to favor your own children but — within certain bounds — are morally required to do so. As a citizen, meanwhile, you ought to keep the pressure on to make our educational system fairer. And many highly selective institutions are, however belatedly, taking measures to broaden the socioeconomic makeup of their student body. (About a fifth of the students in the incoming classes at Harvard, Yale and Princeton are the first in their families to attend college; a fifth are Pell Grant-eligible, meaning they come from low-income households.) A concern for fairness shouldn’t mean leaving your child less prepared; it should mean ensuring that more children are more prepared. Leveling up, not leveling down, is the aim.

I’ll also note that you hired your college consultant not to game your child’s way into the Ivies but to find places that might be off the beaten track — excellent colleges that aren’t necessarily “power brands.” As you recognize, there are doubtless many places where your daughter would flourish. And I don’t see that what you have in mind is likely to compound inequality.

A Bonus Question

My partner and I have been in an on-and-off relationship for several years. He recently bought an apartment under the expectation that he would be living there alone, but he was open to me living with him and helping with the mortgage payments. I have been paying him “rent” since I moved in. We have not had any conversations about being married or establishing a domestic partnership. I am more hesitant than he is to commit to the relationship long-term, for various reasons. Should I be helping him pay the mortgage? What happens if we break up? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

Couples differ in their attitudes to sharing expenses. Some tend to think of their material possessions as common property and don’t keep much track of who pays for what. Some settle on a division of major expenses and think of certain goods as belonging to one or the other. The point is that a couple is, among other things, an economic unit. Transfers of resources within it aren’t like market exchanges outside it. A relationship would have a slim chance of surviving if food and drink and clothing and the other costs of everyday life were regularly recorded and balanced. There’s a reason that, in many marriage ceremonies, people say, “All my worldly goods with thee I share” as they exchange rings.

That’s not where you are. Given your ambivalence about the relationship, the prudent thing to do would be to have a straightforward conversation and sort through these issues — starting with the apartment. Your boyfriend is free to ask you for a reasonable amount in rent while you cohabit. It shouldn’t be calculated as half the mortgage payments, though, because those payments contribute to the growth of his capital but not yours. (I’m putting aside variables like the legal status of your relationship and the property-allocation laws of your state.)

If you break up and you don’t have any explicit agreements, the situation might turn contentious in a way that could even land you in court. A notable feature of your relationship is your shared reticence about discussing it. But some awkwardness today could spare you more serious problems later. At this point, while you’re spending your nights in an apartment he owns, the two of you should consider putting your names on a straightforward rental agreement, specifying your obligations and entitlements. Maybe you’ll end up formalizing your relationship; maybe you’ll definitively part ways. In the uncertain meantime, you should both be able to sleep a little easier.

Readers Respond

Last week’s question was from a reader whose in-laws were overstaying their welcome in his house. He wrote: “For the past few months, my in-laws have been staying in the home where my spouse and I have lived for more than a decade, and it’s a nightmare. This is a small townhouse where we lived with our two now-grown children. The trouble is that my in-laws have no respect for our household rules. They cook all day, talk on the phone at full volume and keep lights on. My father-in-law has the strange habit of flushing the toilet 10 times, and so on. The in-laws have plans to move, but they do not have the money to do so. Ethically, I feel that I should accept this for a while, but I don’t know how long I can stand it.”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “The first person you need to discuss this properly with is your spouse. Make it clear that you find the situation untenable and then set terms together for your cohabitation with your in-laws. That means agreeing on boundaries and probably an upper limit for how long they can stay. … Try to deal with everyone involved, including your spouse, with as much patience and consideration as you can manage. Different cultures have different ideas about what respect for a spouse’s parents entails. But no reasonable cultural understanding requires you to let them ruin your marriage.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

While I completely agree with the Ethicist on the core problem, that the questioner and his spouse are not on the same page, in my experience there are no words or actions that will change the behavior of his in-laws in any material fashion, short of kicking them out. They will not become better houseguests, period. Giving them a departure deadline seems likely to only increase his agony. My advice is to say: “You need to move out by X date. Please start planning your departure.” Tim

One of the funniest shows on TV is “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Visits from his parents are hilarious. I lived with my parents for a year after grad school. They drove me crazy. We drove our parents crazy growing up. Maybe this is some sort of cosmic revenge. Jeff

I find the Ethicist’s advice wishy-washy at best. While understanding that families require patience and forbearance, they also sometimes necessitate an honest and direct approach to achieve a livable situation. Joe

Different cultures do, indeed, have different views on what might be owed to parents. Our American culture that values independence often bumps up against cultures where children are expected to revere and support their parents, simply because they are their parents. Best thing for this writer to do is to determine where he and his spouse land on this issue. Chris

The letter writer should recognize what is really bothering him.While the things he mentioned are annoying, perhaps it is his loss of control that is really bothersome. If the water and electric bills are higher, then he should make sure his in-laws are contributing fairly. Perhaps he can encourage them to take up a moneymaking hobby to shorten the time they will be around. Living with others successfully means letting go of our own notions of how we want things done. He should look at it as a short-term balancing act. Linda

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