“Imagine taking away someone’s education to make your kid look good”: Students’ Perspective on the College Admissions Scandal

By Hannah Martinez

“At first I felt like laughing, like are you serious?” Eirenne O’Neill, a freshman at USC, tells me over the phone. “It was on the news. It’s not something you expect to happen, it blew me away.”

On March 12, the news broke: wealthy parents (including celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin) had paid upwards of $15 million to get their mediocre kids into elite universities, including UCLA and USC. The parents did everything from bribing coaches to changing test scores to photoshopping their children’s faces onto the bodies of athletes to get them into college, all through the corrupt middleman William “Rick” Singer. “I created a side door that would guarantee families would get in,” Singer said in his Boston court hearing last week.

UCLA Campus

The Initial Reaction

For high school seniors to college freshmen to their parents across the nation, this scandal was infuriating. I asked Nick Gonzales, a freshman at UC San Diego, what his inital thoughts were. “Anger and outrage, shock and disbelief,” he sighed.

“This undermines the idea of fairness.” Jasmine Garcia, a senior at Cal, said she was not shocked. “It’s just upsetting.”

O’Neill was worried for her future. “It makes me think of future employers who look at my resume and see USC. Are they going to think of the scandal?”

Most of the schools named in the scandal are elite universities, including Stanford and Yale. “Top-name schools are being outed,” Garcia noted, and Gonzales echoed her assessment. “[As for] the integrity of the universities…there are going to be questions…they will have to prove that the university takes steps to transparency and accountability.”

I asked O’Neill if she thought the integrity of her school, USC, is compromised. “Although [the scandal] does have an effect on our school’s name, it’s also very one-sided. It’s a small occurrence in our long history, and this doesn’t affect the majority of us who worked hard to get to USC,” she said. “Our actions are louder than their bribes.”

Garcia, however, was more angered at the colleges. “I doubt this will have much of a dent, as the UC schools are still top schools. I do think the reputation is ruined now.”

The Fallout

As the scandal unfolds and the parents are shipped off to court hearings, the focus has drifted to the children who, knowingly or unknowingly, attended universities based on lies and bribes. “If students were aware, they should be expelled,” Gonzales said. “They were complicit in this scandal. One of the girls even said in a video she didn’t value her education,” in reference to YouTube video made by influencer Olivia Jade Giannuli, whose parents paid thousands to get her and her sister into USC.

O’Neill and Garcia were more forgiving. “At the beginning, I did feel a little bit bad for the kids that didn’t know,” O’Neill said. Some of the children had no idea their parents changed test scores and photoshopped their faces onto more athletic bodies. “Something should happen [to the students], maybe having to reapply to prove they belong there,” Garcia concluded. “I do feel their admission status should be revoked if they knew.” The children of actress Lori Loughlin and designer Mossimo Giannuli, Olivia Jade and Isabella, are reportedly dropping out of USC; it remains to be seen whether other students will follow their example.

USC Campus

For the parents, no one sheds a tear. “I have zero sympathy for the parents,” Garcia said. “Imagine taking away someone’s education in order for your kid to look good. That’s just. It’s sick.” I asked Garcia if she believed the parents had committed these crimes as a loving mom or dad, or to improve their social status. “It’s a weird mix, I want to feel like they wanted their kids to do good, but also wanted to have that social status.” Gonzales was enraged and said these parents deserve everything they get. “These spots should have gone to someone who worked for it; they just short-cut the system.” O’Neill was determined that these parents would face the full force of the law. “They need to answer for what they did. It’s justice.”

The “System”

In the wake of the scandal, many of done soul-searching, questioning if the admission system is broken. “Universities are built on the idea of a meritocracy,” Gonzales said. “People who get in should deserve to be there. The scandal has come forward, and we’re going to see the college system change in some way.”

O’Neill was more cynical of potential change. “College is a business. We’re only going to see change because the scandal is not good for business. What college should be is academic service.”

Garcia was adamant that there must be overhaul. “The whole system has to be redone,” she said. “And the first thing that has to go is legacy admissions.”

Legacy students are often given priority in admissions, with some schools going as far to reserve seats for legacy students. “Saving seats for athletes is something I understand, but for legacy kids? No. If race-based quotas are illegal, then why aren’t legacy quotas?” Garcia questioned. “It’s the same thing. Just for rich white people.”

“Legacy should not matter in admissions…at the end of the day, it’s not going to matter what school your parents went to. It matters what you did with your education,” O’Neill insisted. “People have worked so hard to get in the honest way and just to get on the playing field with these people only to have it stolen by legacy seats.”

“I hope this whole scandal brings the admission system to the mainstream and allows for helpful discussions,” Gonzales said. “The colleges need to accept some responsibility in this.”

The Lawsuits

There are currently two lawsuits regarding the scandal: one, two Stanford students launching a class-action lawsuit alleging their degrees are now worthless after the scandal; and two, a mom seeking $500 billion in damages after her son was rejected from USC.

O’Neill cheered for the students. “These are students who want to partake in change. Good for them. They’re willing to do something about it.” I asked her whether she would join the suit. She hesitated. “I want to look into it more before I engage myself, but I will definitely check it out.”

Garcia was skeptical of both. “It’s understandable [to sue] but really hard to pull off in court,” she said. “And you don’t have proof that you were rejected specifically because of the cheaters. It’s hard to tell why universities reject you.

Gonzales was intrigued by the validity of the lawsuits. “It’s interesting that there are lawsuits. I think the mom will have a hard time proving herself, but the student’s lawsuit… there is some validity there. To say your degree is diminished because people cheated their way to get one is an interesting argument.”

What Now?

For Eirenne O’Neill and Nick Gonzales, college admissions are a thing of the past, and both are happily settled in their respective colleges. For Jasmine Garcia, however, the scandal struck home.

“I’m just upset that I have to put in the effort that others can pay for,” she said. “I’m also scared that this is going to discourage low-income students who actually qualify for these schools are just not going to apply. Because if someone richer than you can steal your spot just like that, why even bother trying?”

As college admission decisions roll out this month and more information is revealed from the scandal, it is undebatable that the scandal will provoke further questioning of the secretive admissions process. “Let’s be honest. College admissions officers have biases. The college system is unfair from the start,” Gonzales said.

“Admissions need to be based on merit and character, on community service, on commitment,” O’Neill said. “I had younger siblings to raise at home. I was committed to my family, and I still did Model UN and band. I earned a spot at USC, and they didn’t.”

It remains to be seen whether true fairness will ever be achieved.