The elaborate, “Gossip Girl”-worthy college scam recently revealed by the FBI has incensed people across the United States, with college students and their parents in particular expressing the most outrage. The scam was possible because of William “Rick” Singer, who helped parents fake their children’s test scores, recruitment in college athletic teams, and even their races and ethnicities to be accepted into prestigious universities such as the University of Southern California and various Ivy League schools. He collected over $25 million for his efforts, and his clientele included notable celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.
Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Giannulli, better known as Olivia Jade, was accepted to USC after her parents paid $500,000 for their two daughters to be admitted as crew recruits, complete with staged photos of the girls on rowing machines. As a social media influencer with 1.9 million subscribers on YouTube, 1.4 million followers on Instagram and various partnerships with brands such as TRESemmé and Sephora — which have since ended — Giannulli has received perhaps the most backlash on social media. Her entire brand was built around an “I’m rich but still down to earth” image, which was completely shattered by her involvement in the scam. Giannulli has also said in a video that was uploaded before she began her freshman year, “I don’t really care about school.” She later apologized for her statements in a follow-up video. Her words have been the subject of many news reports in the wake of the admissions controversy, and many people are angered that someone who apparently does not even care about her education was able to use her privilege to attend a school over rejected students who work hard and do care about their education.
Many students who grew up watching “Full House” bemoan Loughlin’s involvement in the scheme (“I’m so sad, I love ‘Aunt Becky,’” my friend told me when she heard the news), and Giannulli’s subscribers openly mocked the star through comments on her social media before she disabled them. Since the scandal first came to light, TMZ reported that Giannulli and her sister have dropped out of college because “the family feels certain, if the girls went back to USC, they would be ‘viciously bullied.’”
As a college student, it of course upsets me that students such as Giannulli bought their way into prestigious schools when there are so many students who apply to these schools with true credentials and get rejected, or receive admission but cannot attend due to expensive tuition. Yet, I am almost more irritated that Giannulli and her sister gave up their spots at USC so easily due to a fear of being “viciously bullied,” if TMZ’s source is correct. Their ability to drop out of college so easily showcases their privilege more than their ability to scam their way into it in the first place. It has never been a secret that rich white folks use their money to earn their children places at top colleges, whether it be by making donations to the school or leveraging personal and business connections. Singer’s clients have simply been performing the same tradition, just in a much more illegal way. While this doesn’t excuse their actions by any means, it makes them less shocking.
So many students, particularly students of color, face both outright and covert bullying in schools that invalidate their right to be there even when they do not scam their way in. Such bullying dates back to the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, in which school segregation was outlawed. The Little Rock Nine, a group of nine Black students who enrolled at a previously all-white school in Arkansas to test the court decision, had to be escorted in by federal troops. Even today, many people attribute the admission of students of color in colleges to affirmative action rather than their academic achievements. We have all heard the argument that the only reason students got into a university is because they are Black or another underrepresented race. These students who have their intelligence constantly undermined are exactly the kinds of students defended by critics of parents involved in the scam: Students who work honestly and tirelessly for the chance to earn admission to a school, knowing that if they don’t get accepted, there’s nothing they can do, and that if they do get accepted, they need to work even harder than they did before.
These students don’t have the luxury of quitting school because of a fear of bullying that they will almost inevitably face as people of color at an institution of higher education. Students whose parents can afford to pay bribes to send them to college don’t have to worry about earning enough money post-graduation to make a living. Perhaps these students don’t necessarily receive the kind of blatant backlash that Giannulli has received. However, these students have the burden of knowing that they can’t make mistakes, because any that they do make will perpetuate racial stereotypes that already undermine their presence at their school. They do not have the privilege of buying their way into school, and they do not have the privilege of making mistakes. They do not have the privilege of dropping out after funneling so much of their hard-earned resources into obtaining an education.
I do believe that the Giannullis made the right choice in dropping out. Yet, I wish that the reason they did it was because they felt remorse about the situation, rather than because they were afraid of being bullied. From the harsh backlash they have received, it’s understandable that they feel scared and mortified. But their willingness to give up their spots at USC without even fighting for them, despite their willingness to be a part of an incredibly illegal scheme to be admitted in the first place, further undermines the efforts of students who endure hardships for the chance to receive an education.
To all parents out there: If your children don’t get admitted to the college of their dreams, enroll them in another school where they earned admission, and encourage them to submit a transfer application for the following year or semester. If you have enough money to bribe college admissions to admit your child, instead use that money to hire tutors for your children so that they can maintain a high GPA so as not to risk commemorating their college years with a criminal record. Bribery may seem like a perfectly acceptable course of action in “Gossip Girl.” In this case, however, do not let life imitate art.
Krystal Hur can be reached at email@example.com.