When the massive college admissions scam broke into the open on Tuesday, Ryan Cobb's dad texted him about a family friend. "Holy shit!!! mike center!!! Unbelievably stupid" the message read, alongside a link to a news story about how, as head tennis coach of the University of Texas at Austin, Michael Center allegedly took bribes from parents who wanted to make it seem like their lackluster kids were actually promising athletic recruits. Center was among the dozens of people—including famous actresses and financial power players—federal prosecutors said cheated the system by either ensuring access for uninspiring offspring or else attempting to profit.
"If I can make the comparison, there is a front door of getting in where a student just does it on their own, and then there’s a back door where people go to institutional advancement and make large donations, but they’re not guaranteed in," William Singer, who pleaded guilty in court to effectively masterminding the scam, said in official testimony. “And then I created a side door that guaranteed families to get in. So that was what made it very attractive to so many families, is I created a guarantee.”
Now a junior at UT-Austin himself, Cobb was slightly less amused than his father was about the fact people were doing things like allegedly photoshopping their kids playing water polo to game the admissions process. Like other students at the affected schools, he was pretty pissed off, and suggested the still-developing saga reflected not only massive wealth disparities and individual criminals but also a broken culture.
"It really just highlights the prevalence of privilege and corruption, still, in our society," Cobb told me. "We have a reputation in Texas for always making sure everyone knows you're a UT student because it's notoriously the toughest to get into, and if you're in, it's like the cream of the crop. But this is severely undermined by Center and—I'm sure—other officials, too, sliding kids in with 60-grand payments in hotel parking lots." (Center, who has been fired, was set to plead not guilty to the charges, his attorney said earlier this week.)
Gene Tan is a freshman and first-generation immigrant from Malaysia whose first choice was UT Austin but now attends the University of Southern California. The highest-profile student there who, wittingly or otherwise, allegedly benefited from the scheme was influencer Olivia Jade Giannulli, daughter to Full House actress Lori Loughlin. Giannulli (now notoriously) said, "I don't really care about school" in an August video, and missed part of her first week to travel to Fiji. Giannulli was also reportedly on a USC official's yacht when the story broke, which made her episode perhaps the most galling and also darkly funny of the whole bunch.
"Honestly, we find it humorous that they are only now discovering something like this, but humor aside, I personally think that it raises a whole new issue on admissions and this also doesn’t help the case of 'minorities are taking up all the spots in college' when things like these just refute claims by those kinds of people," Tan told me about the reaction the story was getting his campus. "People like [Giannulli] and her family are taking up spots that could otherwise be earned through merit and achievement.
But then again, he added, "We also do have that moniker of 'University of Spoiled Children' for a reason."
Shahin Rafikian is a 23-year-old graduate student at Georgetown, where one student implicated in the probe—carried out under the FBI codename "Operation Varsity Blues"—was said to have knowingly cheated on her SATs. "Personally I’m proud of myself to be enrolled in GU fairly, but it’s genuinely frustrating to have this one known case of unfair admissions, because it makes me think about how many other unknown cases there might be involving unfair admission, and it takes away an opportunity for someone who’s actually qualified to learn and contribute to GU programs," he said.
Rafikian added that he had just applied to a PhD program at one of the involved schools and been rejected. In the back of his head, he couldn't help but wonder if his spot was taken by someone who paid their way into a program others were competing for. In that sense, for young people at implicated schools—and, one suspects, plenty of others—the scandal was downright paranoia-inducing. It was also a real-time lesson in the class system that persists in America despite generations of pretending otherwise.
In other words, you don't have to be a criminal to cheat your way in.
The fallout made Rafikian think of Kylie Jenner being branded a self-made billionaire. "Sure, she started her own empire, but it’s not because she came from nothing," he said. "She came from a multi-million dollar imperial family. The fault of all this is that people who are wealthy don’t realize the privilege they have to have more access to success."
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