Recently, I asked the 12 students in my upper-level journalism course at Columbia College what they thought about the college admissions scandal playing out in California and elsewhere. My students come from as far as away as Miami and as close as Humboldt Park. Some attended selective-enrollment high schools, others public or private schools in their neighborhoods. They identify as Flilpinx, Latinx, Asian, white, queer and straight. (It’s an unusual semester in which I have no African-American students in this class.) They have been following the news, and weren’t shy about sharing their opinions.
“I knew it!” one declared. “When the stakes are that high and people have that much money, there’s too much opportunity for those people to play the system.”
“Those people.” As opposed to my students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. And the college they’ve chosen isn’t Ivy League or even particularly selective. It’s a place that promises to help students “find out who they are and discover their own voices” and “discover alterative opportunities to employ their talents in settings other than customary marketplaces.” In other words, a college for creatives, not climbers.
“I had a suspicion when I was growing up,” said one student, whose parents are from Cuba and who was one of only two Latinx students selected for her high school’s predominately white pre-International Baccalaureate program. “How did everyone who looks like that get into the Scholars Academy?” Like “that,” and not like her.
Others spoke of the advantages certain students had that were visible when they were in earlier grades. “The wealthier kids had higher GPAs because they had tutors and took courses at the community college,” one said. “I went to a college-prep school, and even there you had students who had more money and could pay for ACT prep outside of school,” added another. “If you have money, you have that advantage in education.”
“I guess I always had the belief that if you had a lot of money, you would go to the best schools,” one student said. “I knew there had to be some of this going on,” said another, recalling students with lower GPAs than hers who got into Harvard.
The current scandal came as no surprise to them, in other words. It just affirmed their suspicions and observations going back to elementary school.
My non-white students noted that this incident flips the script. One recalled her peers’ beliefs that she was benefitting from affirmative action when she was accepted at Brown. “You don’t know how hard I worked to get in,” she said. She chose not to go there because it didn’t have the combination of majors she was interested in, and she’s glad she made that choice.
My students were less angry than they were philosophical. “I think it shows a flaw in how we admit people into college,” one said. “I think it’s good that it’s coming to light, but unfortunately, not shocking.”
I asked them what they think should happen to the students who were admitted on false pretenses or through bribes. Nobody thought the students should be kicked out of the schools, but several felt they should have to reapply for the next year.
More important, they felt, was that the students realize that what their parents had done on their behalf was wrong.
“I’m willing to believe they didn’t know” about the cheating, one of my students said, adding that this could hardly have been the first time their parents took unfair and possibly illegal measures to provide them with advantages in life.
In the end, my students felt that kind of parenting wouldn’t serve these kids well. “They need to learn to have enough self-esteem and not worry so much about titles and money,” said another.
“But even if they were kicked out, they are still going to be fine,” she added. “That’s just the reality of it, given their network and their safety net.”
Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, an Oak Park resident, is an associate professor of journalism in the Communication Department at Columbia College Chicago.