Cawley: Decision Day consequences during scandalous times

Actress Lori Loughlin leaves John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse following her hearing for her alleged involvement in the college admissions scam. (Spenser R. Hasak)

Wednesday was National Decision Day, when high school seniors have to decide what college they will attend. It was also the day federal prosecutors announced their own decision to pursue more parents in the sprawling admissions scandal.

The New York Times reported more parents were being investigated in the college admissions bribery scheme, “spreading fear in Southern California’s elite circles.” The scheme has already resulted in charges against celebrities Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman and a total of 33 parents.

Let’s hope the seniors got into their colleges of choice on their own merits and not based on the status, connections or financial wherewithal of their parents.

For many of us, getting into college, especially if it was our school of choice, was validation for the hard work we put in during high school, whether that meant taking on more difficult classes, putting in extra time studying, or taking SAT prep courses on Saturday mornings.

It was even more exciting to know it was something we achieved on our own, which means a lot to a teenager who is probably still relying on their parents for financial support.

That’s what makes this scandal, which is being called the nation’s largest-ever college admissions bribery scheme, all the more disappointing to hear or read about.

In some instances, it appears teens got into top colleges thinking it was based on their own merits, only to find out later that their parents had bought their way in. Some examples included parents bribing college coaches or officials to recruit their kids for sports they’d never played.

It’s hard not to feel bad for the students involved if they weren’t aware of their parents’ efforts. In March, the University of Southern California decided to revoke admission for students connected to the scheme and barred students who may be involved from registering for classes, essentially stalling their college plans.

For students who get into elite schools based on help from their parents, it’s not too much of a leap to assume they won’t do well in their classes once they’re there.

There’s a reason the Ivy League acceptance rate is miniscule. Contrary to what Elle Woods in Legally Blonde asks her ex-boyfriend who is stunned to find her at Harvard Law School — “what, like it’s hard?” — it isn’t easy to get in.

Despite the admissions scandal sending ripples through an elite, wealthy and privileged community in Southern California, the practice of students getting into elite schools because of their parents shouldn’t come as a shock. It’s been going on for years, but it seems past practice has been to look the other way.

What about an SAT proctor taking bribes to correct students’ answers or allowing someone else to take the actual test for the student? There have been past cases of SAT test-takers for hire, with fake school IDs allowing someone to pass as another student on the day of the exam.

How about looking favorably upon admitting a student based on their parents being a large donor to the school or giving preference to a legacy student who has had generations of family members attend that elite college?

None of this is fair. But for the cynical among us, it’s an early lesson that sometimes success is based on who you know, rather than hard work, talent or ability.

After all, students who get admitted to elite colleges based on their parents’ help are taking slots away from the student who may not have the same means or connections, but put in far more time studying or taking on extra-curricular activities to strengthen their application.

I witnessed preferential treatment for a chosen few while I was attending the University of Connecticut, a school that’s become more well-known in recent years based on the success of its men’s and women’s basketball teams.

In one case, I was taking a general education class on feminism in the arts. The major assignment for the semester was a group project, with the professor informing the class that the group that scored the top grade on the project would get additional points on either the project or the final exam.

I’m a little hazy on what the points were for, but what I do remember is the annoyance I felt when my group learned that a UConn football player, who didn’t appear to do any of the work, was added to our group and would get the same extra points we earned if he simply presented our project to the lecture-hall style class.

It turns out he had missed a lot of classes and needed to boost his grade. As part of the extra credit, the project needed to be presented and the teacher decided to give him a break, a chance to redeem himself.

My annoyance deepened when small talk in our group led to me telling him one of my majors was journalism and he joked that I’d be reporting on him one day. Clearly, those were my aspirations at the time (eye roll).

Another example was taking a News Writing lab course, where students learned the basics of reporting and compiling a news story. A UConn women’s basketball player was in my class. I think I saw her once all semester, but I’m not sure how that affected her grade.

Some may argue that all of this is par for the course. But it’s hard not to feel annoyed when others catch breaks based on their wealth, status and privilege when others have to work much harder and still may not catch a break at all.

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