Students at UCLA and elsewhere are not surprised at the admissions cheating scandal rocking the higher education world. They are more frustrated, and cynical. UCLA was one of the institutions caught up in the scam. (Megan Schellong/NPR)
Actress Lori Loughlin, from the TV show Full House, turned herself in to the FBI Wednesday, a day after being charged my prosecutors in a massive college admissions cheating and bribery scandal.
Loughlin along with her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, were among 33 parents who allegedly paid enormous sums of money to get their kids into the nation's top universities.
Meantime, Loughlin's daughter, a known social media influencer, is one of many students across the country now having their legitimacy as a student questioned, as news of the scam is reinforcing many students' worst fears that the college admissions system is rigged in favor of those with money and privilege.
The details are jaw dropping: the $6,000,000 bribe. The beloved coaches on the take. The parents hoping to impress schools, by having their kids' faces photo-shopped onto the bodies of real athletes.
But to many students, the underlying reality that some rich kids are buying their way into school, comes as no shock.
"My initial reaction was disgust," says UCLA junior Rugile Pekinas. "[I was] not surprised at all, really."
Pekinas is one of many who see it as just part of the game. "What you're born into is a lot of what you get in life, as this shows," she sighs.
The bigger surprise, to students like Jacqueline Valadez, is that people are now actually getting busted for doing it.
"We've always known that people with more power and influence are able to get away with things that they shouldn't be able to," says Valadez. "But my first reaction was 'why all of the sudden are they facing repercussions for it?' That's the part that was surprising to me."
So far, the students themselves are not among those charged in the scheme, nor, have they been disciplined by schools — at least as far as we know. Olivia Jade Giannulli, the daughter of Loughlin and Giannulli, is among the most high profile students now under a cloud of suspicion. Her parents allegedly paid a half million dollars in bribes to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California. Olivia Jade posted a video last August, just before she started at USC, that makes it clear she was not going to college for the academics:
"I do want the experience of game days and partying," she says in the video. "I don't really care about school... as you guys all know."
Giannulli quickly backtracked on her post, calling it "super ignorant and stupid," and insisting that "education is important."
Cheating scandal raises questions
The scandal has left many students — especially those who got into school the hard way — wondering who else didn't.
"In general you can tell like when someone bought their way in," says UCLA junior Mario Anderson. "They just have that je ne sais quoi [about] money." Anderson says he's been rethinking why he got rejected from Columbia. "If it weren't for the 'moneyed' [students] getting in, I would have had a better chance," he says.
Waruguru Ndirangu is a senior at UCLA and says she's heard the same qualms from a friend who was rejected from Stanford.
"At the time she just felt like, okay there's probably better people, more competitive people," Ndirangu says. "But now, knowing that like people could just pay their way in and take her spot, it's really disheartening."
Ndirangu say it's especially infuriating to her, as a student of color.
"Like people say that we only get in because of affirmative action, or that we don't deserve to be here," she says. "So it's ironic that the people telling us this actually paid their way into here."
Getting it all on the table now, Ndirangu says, may be something of a silver lining to the scandal. "Now they can't tell us s**t about how we got in here," she says. "I feel like for us, it kind of takes that chip off of our shoulder from these accusations. To see the script flip like that, it kind of feels good to be honest."
Students of wealth will always have a better shot
On the other side of the country, on the campus of Boston College, students express similar frustration and cynicism.
Selena Bemak is applying to grad school at Boston College. As she sees it, the news that a few dozen bad apples were busted yesterday is less of a comfort than a reminder of how much she and other less privileged students are up against.
"I will always worry in back of mind," Bemak says, that students of greater wealth and privilege will have a better shot than she does. Yesterday's arrests, "could not have cleaned up [the corruption] entirely. There's no way they could have."
Bemak is among the many who also worry about the cheating and fraud that happens on a smaller scale every day, by people embellishing their applications, for example, or overstating how many hours they volunteer, or the awards they got.
Hard as it is to verify every detail of every application, senior Caitlin Connor says it's up to schools to do a better job of policing and deterring that. Then, she says, "students would be more hesitant to lie on their application, when they know that certain schools are doing something like spot checks and things like that."
But ultimately, she says, it will be hard to level the playing field when the reality is that that wealthy and influential parents can also pay to play — without breaking any laws.
"People are still going to say 'I'm going to donate a million dollars for this building and then you can let my son into school'," she says. "And obviously its unjust, but of course it will keep happening."
Junior David McKenzie, who was recruited — legitimately — by the Boston College track team, takes a similarly pessimistic view of it all. "I mean the world's not fair," he says. "A lot of people are going to be doing crooked things to get into college. That's just how the world works. All you can do is do your best, and hope for the best."
NPR wants to hear from anyone who has received advice from the man at the center of the college admissions scandal, William Rick Singer, and any of his companies — The Key, The Key Worldwide Foundation, Future Stars, The CollegeSource or others? Fill out the form below or here.
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