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College Students See Nothing New In Admissions Scandal

Mar 13, 2019
Originally published on March 14, 2019 6:38 am

Actress Lori Loughlin, from the TV show Full House, turned herself in to the FBI Wednesday, a day after being charged by 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. 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.

What you're born into is a lot of what you get in life, as this shows. - Rugile Pekinas, UCLA junior

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.

18-year-old Jacqueline Valadez attends UCLA. She's surprised people are actually facing repercussions for cheating on college admissions.
Megan Schellong / NPR

"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.

Mario Anderson is a junior at UCLA. The admissions scandal leaves him wondering where else he could have gotten in if others hadn't cheated.
Megan Schellong / NPR

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, OK 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 says it's especially infuriating to her, as a student of color.

"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."

People say that we only get in because of affirmative action, or that we don't deserve to be here. So it's ironic that the people telling us this actually paid their way into here. - Waruguru Ndirangu, UCLA senior

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*** 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."

I mean the world's not fair. 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. - David McKenzie, Boston College junior

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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Just hours ago, the actress Lori Loughlin from the TV show "Full House" turned herself in to the FBI. Loughlin, along with her husband, were among a long list of other parents - almost 30 in total - who are accused of paying enormous sums of money to get their kids into the nation's top universities. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, the news is reinforcing many of students' worst fears about a system they believe to be rigged.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The details are jaw-dropping - the $6 million bribe, beloved coaches on the take, parents hoping to impress schools by having their kids' faces Photoshopped onto the bodies of real athletes. But to many students, the reality that some rich kids are buying their way into school comes as no shock.

REGALA PECKINESS: My initial reaction was just, like, disgust - like, not surprised at all.

SMITH: UCLA junior Regala Peckiness (ph) says she sees it as just part of the game.

PECKINESS: What you're born into is ultimately a lot of what you get in life, as this shows.

SMITH: The bigger surprise to some is that people are now actually getting busted for doing it. So far, the students themselves are not among those charged in the scheme, nor have they been disciplined by schools as far as we know. It's all fueling doubt and speculation among some students about which of their classmates might not have earned their way in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLIVIA JADE GIANNULLI: I do want the experience of, like, game days, partying. I don't really care about school as you guys all know (laughter).

SMITH: That's Olivia Jade Giannulli, a social media influencer and the daughter of actress Lori Loughlin and designer Mossimo Giannulli. The parents are charged with paying half a million dollars in bribes to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California. Olivia Jade Giannulli quickly backtracked on her post, calling it super ignorant. But it's all left other students who got into school the hard way, like Mario Anderson, wondering who else didn't.

MARIO ANDERSON: In general, like, you can tell, like, when someone bought their way in. They just have a je ne sais quoi of money.

SMITH: Anderson says he's been rethinking why he got rejected from some schools. Waruguru Ndirangu says she's heard the same doubts from a friend who was rejected from Stanford.

WARUGURU NDIRANGU: At the time, she, like, just, like, felt like, OK, there is probably, like, more competitive people. But now knowing that, like, people could just pay their way in and take her spot is - yeah, it's really disheartening.

SMITH: Ndirangu says it's especially infuriating to her as a student of color.

NDIRANGU: Like, people say that we only get in because of, like, affirmative action, or we don't deserve to be here. So it's ironic that the people telling us this actually paid their way into here.

SMITH: Getting it all on the table now, Ndirangu says, is a bit of a relief.

NDIRANGU: Like, now they can't tell us [expletive] about, like, how we got in here. It kind of takes that chip off our shoulder from, like, these accusations. So, like, to see the, like, script flipped like that, it kind of feels good, to be honest (laughter).

SMITH: Across the country, on the campus of Boston College, students express similar frustration. Selena Bemak (ph) is applying to BC grad school. As she sees it, the few dozen bad apples busted yesterday are just a reminder of what less-privileged students like her are up against.

SELENA BEMAK: I think it's always going to be a worry in the back of my mind. They definitely have not cleaned up everything entirely. There's no way they could have.

SMITH: Many students say they also worry about the cheating and fraud that happens on a smaller scale every day by people embellishing their applications, for example, by overstating how many hours they volunteer or the awards they got. Hard as it is to verify every detail on every application, they say it's on schools to do a better job policing that. Senior Caitlin Connor (ph) says she also worries about the legal ways that money and privilege influence the application process and how parents can pay to play without breaking any laws.

CAITLIN CONNOR: People are still going to be like, I'm going to donate a million dollars for this building to be done, and then you can let my son into school. And, obviously it's injust (ph), but of course it's going to keep happening.

SMITH: As another student put it, people are always going to do crooked things to get into college. It's just how the world works. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.