For students, college scandal makes stressful process worse
Sarah Gloria always knew Yale was a long shot.
The Shelton High School senior hoped that by working hard, loading up on Advanced Placement courses and spending hundreds of hours in band practice and on the tennis court, she could narrow the odds.
She made it to No. 1 in her class, knowing that being valedictorian still might not get her into Yale.
“There are so many valedictorians,” she said, still waiting on a decision.
As of Tuesday, Gloria felt the odds may have grown larger. She now knows that at least one student Yale admitted got in with money, not merit. Like other students, she was outraged that spots at elite colleges could be bought.
The cheating scandal that came to light during the week made some students question working so hard. Others said it added a stressful layer to a daunting process.
The bribery scandal, according to U.S. Department of Justice documents released Tuesday, involves eight universities and a company that provided a so-called “side door” for rich parents by doctoring SAT scores or getting students falsely recruited for sports they did not play.
In addition to Yale, the scandal involved Georgetown, the University of Southern California, UCLA, Wake Forest, Stanford, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of San Diego. In each case, it appears test proctors or university coaches were bribed. Admissions officials have not been implicated.
Still, to Fairfield Ludlowe Headmaster Greg C. Hatzis, the situation exacerbates a college admission process that he says is already creating a mental health crisis among today’s youth.
“Instead of taking classes for passion, everyone is posturing for college process,” Hatzis said.
There is an obsession with Advanced Placement courses that are now seen more as ‘gold chips’ than a leg up in college.
And for what, he asks — if the system is rigged.
‘A hopeless feeling’
Shelton High senior Deanna Fava, 17, said she worked as hard as she could to look good for potential colleges. She ran track, performed community service, served as captain of the robotics team and had a schedule filled with AP and University of Connecticut courses.
Anger and resentment, she said, don’t begin to describe how she feels that some can bribe their way in.
“My family is not well (off) ... at all,” Fava said. “To think that somebody could just come in and pay their way in, it kind of like gives you a hopeless feeling.”
If the financial aid package is good enough, Fava will study engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. If not, she said, getting into her second choice would not be the end of the world.
Sophie O’Brien, a senior at Fairfield Warde was also surprised by the revelations.
“It’s clear how monetized the college operation is in the U.S.,” she said.
O’Brien said her dad warned her not to go crazy with her college search. She tried not to make it a big deal, but admits getting caught up once she stepped on the Fordham University campus in the Bronx, N.Y.
She fell in love. Fordham accepted her. She can’t afford it.
Samuel Kocurek, a Shelton senior with Yale on his short list, called the situation disheartening. But he was glad it went public. He doesn’t hold a grudge against the Ivy League, but he does resent parents who would think so little of their kids that they would pay huge sums to get them a spot.
“It’s embarrassing,” Kocurek said.
Others were left confused.
“If they had the money, why not get a trainer?” said Colin Mengold, 17, another Shelton senior. “Or tutors? Or SAT Prep? It would be so much less, and so much easier.”
“Everyone knows people who have money can get into schools easier than those who don’t,” said Molly McLaughlin, a Fairfield Ludlowe senior. “Can’t they just make donations?”
Never a level field
“Has college ever been based on pure meritocracy,” asked Ryan Salese, 17, showing off his AP English vocabulary.
Salese, a senior at Fairfield Warde, said he went into the college process with open eyes.
His parents paid an outside counselor to help Salese present himself better, keep him on track, study for the SAT’s and write a better essay.
“My family thought it was important,” Salese said. “It gives me a perspective on this scandal. It is no surprise that wealth give an advantage to getting into college.”
Salese said he likes a challenge of the AP classes he took. He thinks it paid off. He got into Syracuse and plans a double major in journalism and political science.
The only outside assistance Warde senior Maggie Limone had was an SAT prep book her parents bought.
She worked hard and focused on small, liberal arts colleges. She got into her first two choices — Smith and Skidmore — but can afford neither of them.
Skidmore tuition is expected to cost $80,000 a year by the time she is a senior, Limone said.
“That’s insane,” she said. “You are supposed to work hard and the rest will take care of itself. That’s the American Dream.”
Instead, she said, it just comes down to the socioeconomic class system — and Limone counts herself among the privileged.
“Fairfield is an affluent town; “I know we have more than neighboring Bridgeport has,” said Limone, who is a volunteer tutor in a Bridgeport after-school program.
Beyond normal privilege
Tim Dutton, principal at The Bridge Academy Charter School in Bridgeport, which makes its mission getting students into college, said he has always understood the system to be unfair for disadvantaged kids.
“Our students don’t have much SAT prep, application coaching, or access to opportunities that enhance college applications,” Dutton said.
This scandal, he said, goes beyond normal privilege.
“What happen to American morals and ideals?,” he said. “ Is it really all about ‘I have got to get the best for mine?’”
One of his seniors, Janae Gaines, 17, said the scandal is appalling.
“All our lives we’ve worked twice as hard just to make sure we even make it somewhere in life,” Gaines said. “Now ... there may be someone out there who’s rich enough to take your spot.”
Amaya Labrador, 18, another Bridge senior, can’t say she is surprised.
“I have always figured if you have the money and know the right people, you could buy yourself into anywhere,” she said.
Jeff Meyers, a Ludlowe senior, said this isn’t a good look for the college process in general — “but it brings attention to a really big issue in our country.”
Tip of the iceberg?
Teresa Wilson, who runs Village Initiative Program that exposes Bridgeport area teenagers to colleges, agreed.
“A lot of us in education who try to get students to college realized this was going on,” she said. “I have heard of it on a much smaller scale.”
She expects there are a lot of people shaking in their boots right now. She has to believe that others in the universities — professors or admissions staff — had to know.
“It is so disheartening for my kids who are working so hard,” said Wilson, who just returned from taking three students to Temple University for Student Acceptance Day.
“Temple had 36,000 applications and they accepted 5,000. My students were blessed to get in,” Wilson said, although one may not be able to go because of the cost.
“I have come to understand that college is a big business,” Wilson said. “It’s a money game.”
“The thing about the scandal is that there are so many people who are qualified do so well in so many places and there are not enough spots,” said Amber Smith, a Ludlowe senior headed to Duke.
Smith said that on tours of Duke all they talked about was trying to create scholars ready to go into the world and make a difference.
That someone would lie their way into college, Smith said, is atrocious.
“At the end of the day, morals are a lot more important,” Smith said.