As the nation has watched the college admissions scandal unfold with celebrities Lori Laughlin, Felicity Huffman, and other wealthy parents, shocking stories about alleged bribery and fake athlete statuses showed just how far parents might go.
The pressure to get into a top college can be incredibly stressful for high school students and their families. The finish line for many is a good university, a springboard to a bright future and financial security.
But the distance to those college gates is not the same as it was twenty years ago -- or even five years ago.
The college entry standards keep getting tougher at top-ranked universities. Admissions officials say one of the reasons for that is the ease of applications; students can apply to multiple colleges with one application.
"The common application itself now has 800 different member institutions, so it's much easier for students to apply to multiple institutions, and you're seeing the number of applications per student rise," said Kevin Dyerly, the Vice President of Enrollment at the University of Redlands and member of the Western Association For College Admission Counseling.
Dyerly said the ease and online accessibility has also inflated applicant numbers significantly.
"If it's the same number of seats available across colleges and the universities, and students are applying four or fivefold than they were a generation ago, you can see why selectivity would increase," said Dyerly.
Earlier this year, elite colleges like Yale University and USC announced record-high numbers of applicants and historically-low admission rates. These plunging acceptance rates only heap more pressure on high school students, with some parents fixated on acceptance as a measure of future success.
"There's immense pressure, and you feel that competitiveness in everything that you do," said Annabelle Bartlett, the senior class president of Palm Desert High School.
And it's not just grades and extracurriculars at play. Across the nation, parents can pay more than one million dollars for college consultations. Ivy Coach, a college counseling company based in New York, confirmed to KESQ that prices for a comprehensive college consultation package can go as high as $1.5 million. Here in the desert, a one-hour private college consultation session goes for around $100 per session.
"With the competitiveness, I feel there's a pressure to be perfect in every area. Perfect academically, Perfect volunteering hours, Perfect athletically," said Bartlett. "Just in everything you need to be the best in order to stand out from the other of hundreds of thousands of applicants."
The cutthroat competition in education only adds to the stress. According to the CDC, anxiety and depression among children up to 17 have increased over time.
i've definitely seen a rise in students who are dealing with anxiety and depression for a lot of reasons, but some of that does stem from academic competition and this idea that they have to be perfect in order to be accepted into a university," said Stephanie Granatos, a Palm Desert High School counselor.
Counselors urged students to find what's best for their talents -- and that might not necessarily be an Ivy League or UC school. Dyerly also pointed out that the average admittance rate for colleges across the nation is actually 65%.
"The vast majority of institutions say yes to far more students than they say no to," said Dyerly. "The prize is not getting in; the prize is actually the growth and development and the community building that will occur over the next four years.
"Only so many students are going to be admitted, that's just the reality," said Granatos. "I try to encourage them to focus more on pursuing their passions."
Admissions officials said to also remember that students can avoid deeper debt by going to community college first. It can also be easier to get accepted to a four-year university if a student transfers from a community college.
College of the Desert offers free two-year tuition to high school graduates from the Coachella Valley.