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Operation Varsity Blues — in which the FBI charged several parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, for allegedly bribing their kids’ way into colleges — has been one of the biggest scandals to ever upset higher education. The investigation, and the indictments announced in March, sparked debates about the corruption of privilege. But for many private schools, college admissions have always been scandalous.
From made-to-order Belgian waffles to birthday parties on yachts to fundraising performances by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, L.A. private schools have long been a symbol of the excess of the wealthy and well-connected — especially when it comes to children getting into colleges.
For students at L.A. top private schools, the pressure to get into a top 25 college can be intense. At schools like these, acceptance letters to elite colleges can act as social currency, and student-made spreadsheets of who-got-in-where float around every year. This creates a lot of tension for not just the students but for parents.
“Some parents purposefully refused to talk to other parents, even if they were good friends, when other people’s kids got into a school over their own kid,” says Alejandro Campillo, a current student at Yale University and an alumnus of a private school in L.A.
After the FBI revealed that it had indicted 51 individuals in connection with their investigation, including 33 parents, things got awkward at some area schools. “People were definitely talking about who they knew that was involved and how they were affected by the scandal,” said Sydney Pizer, a senior at the time and now an incoming freshman at Georgetown University. “But I think the conversation was more about how wrong it was, instead of purely salacious gossip.”
Many seniors were anxious to see if the scandal implicating schoolmates would retroactively affect their college acceptances, but also what it would mean for their school’s reputation. “There was a general vibe of hopelessness amid the incoming college decisions,” says Douglas Kerner, a high school senior at the time. “It felt like because the actions of a few people, that all of our hard work would be compromised.”
However, many students indicated that lesser forms of cheating have gone on for years at these schools. “Parents would do a lot of things from giving their kids extra time for tests to literally asking teachers to change grades and basically attempting to fire teachers who didn’t give their kids good grades,” says Ty Frost, a student at Tulane University and alumnus of an L.A. private school. Last year, at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, the headmaster was accused of altering the grades of children whose parents sit on the school’s board of trustees. Though the board, in a letter to parents, said he had acted within his rights and that no evidence of preferential treatment was found, the headmaster has since exited the post.
Following the FBI investigation, some private schools in the L.A. area have integrated mandatory integrity assemblies and meetings into the college counseling process that focus on personal achievements and steering clear of cheating.
At USC, the eye of the storm in the wake of the scandal, many current students openly voice their displeasure.
“On campus, there is a palpable divide between those who worked their way here and those who floated their way there,” says Spencer Straus, a freshman in the same dorm as social-media influencer Olivia Jade, whose parents, Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, were accused of paying an admissions fixer $500,000. “I think this is going to have a big impact on campus culture.”
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