The University of Southern California ranks 22nd in the nation, according to US News and World Report. The school touts some of the country’s top engineering, business, and journalism programs—plus one of the largest international student populations on the West Coast. USC administrators have long dreamed of becoming SoCal’s Stanford(another Harvard of the West), and, until then, it’s got getting-better academics, a competitive football program, and a plum location in the cradle of sunny Los Angeles. For the exorbitantly rich, it’s also a great backup option.
So when news broke yesterday of the largest-scale college admissions cheating scheme ever—with splashy ties to Hollywood—I wasn’t totally surprised USC, where I went, was implicated alongside Yale, Georgetown, University of Texas, Wake Forest, and Stanford. According to the federal indictment, William Singer is accused of running a college counseling service and was paid on average $250,000 to $400,000 by parents to guarantee admissions to these schools, often funneling bribes to athletic coaches to designate their children as recruits. According to The New York Times, actor Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, are accused of paying $500,000 to have their daughter designated as a USC crew team recruit, guaranteeing her admission to the school even though she reportedly did not participate on a crew team.
In addition to being a perfect story for 2019—publicly pantsing celebrities, the stupidly rich, and the broken systems they prey on—the news blew up my gchat. Friends and I exchanged personal recollections of students who did not deserve to be on campus, yet literally and figuratively owned the place.
During my time as an undergrad, from 2009 to 2013, rumors circulated the campus of the colorful ways in which my fellow matriculates had entered our beloved university (Fittingly nicknamed: University of Spoiled Children; how naive we were!). Whispers and rumors spread of acceptance through the “art major” program. This scheme involved potential USC students submitting falsified art portfolios, commissioned by their families and presented as their own work. Upon acceptance into the fine arts program, some students would take one semester of classes then transfer to the department of their choice. Plagiarism, possible mail fraud, and what we can safely assume were some really bad freshman art projects were said to pave the road to a degree for the GPA-deficient rich. Other students were rumored to have earned their admission through the traditional form of bribery: family donations.
When I was on campus from 2009 to 2013, the notion of students benefitting from a corrupt admissions process felt as ubiquitous as students taking Adderall or cheating on exams. “Everyone knew, nobody cared,” one friend put it. And it was hard to perceive any regret or embarrassment among the students who benefitted. At a fraternity invite, a “water polo recruit” drunkenly bragged to me that he drew a tree on a college entrance exam, then explained what the tree meant to him. He laughed at what a joke the system was, without acknowledging he was complicit in perpetuating the system, taking away higher education from deserving people.
Laughlin’s daughter, Olivia Jade, spoke about her upcoming college experience on her popular YouTube series. She explained that she’s never really been into school, hopes she can balance her social media presence with her workload (as she is going to Fiji the first week of school), and lives in fear that she will be used by other students because of her pseudo-celebrity status. She fails to mention crew.
Now, being confronted with evidence that insanely rich students paid their way into the university seems to be a spotlight on the mediocrity that was there all along. If someone’s family can pay $500,000 for admission into a competitive university, we can only imagine what was spent racking up advantages leading up to application season. (As one father who was part of the scheme noted, the cheating scam was popular among his daughter’s fellow Greenwich tennis academy attendees.) Were the private schools, tutors, prep classes, volunteer trips, extra-curricular activities, and legacy status really not enough to get you in?
The art-turned-business majors, “daughters/sons of large donations,” and the “water polo recruits” all walked in my graduation ceremony. To their friends and families, it was an occasion to support and affirm the graduates’ achievements as nothing other than their own. To the students who “deserved” to be on campus, the first-generation students (USC brags that 17% of the 2020 class is first-generation), and those who didn’t come from privilege, their presence reinforced a suspicion often born on brochure-ready, deeply unequal college campuses: that meritocracy is a lie. How can any accomplishment feel real when it is shared with those who bought it?
Since we inaugurated a president who grifted and lied his way to the White House, it’s been hard to maintain illusions that people deserve what they have. I learned to expect the rich to take advantage of their privilege in any way possible a long time ago, but the college scam news landed with a thud that deflated some of the remaining pride I had for my degree.
I’m still going to work “twice as hard,” but without the expectation that doing so will bear the same results as when the superrich “try.” I can draw a really good tree.