college admissions:

The Side Door

Silicon Valley’s contentious culture of wealth and achievement has pushed parents to see their children’s acceptance into an elite university as one of life’s most important goals — a narrowed perspective that leads some to spend outrageous sums, inflict damaging pressure on their own children, and in the process, unintentionally exclude other students from these institutions.

 

News of the college admissions scandal hit my private high school hard. Two of the families charged with bribing and cheating sent their children to my preparatory school. One of those families, the Palatellas, has their name emblazoned over our football field.

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Altogether, federal prosecutors have indicted 33 parents in the scandal. More than a quarter come from Silicon Valley, where my school is located in the exclusive enclave of Atherton. To get their kids into USC, Stanford, Yale, and other prestigious schools, parents allegedly paid off coaches to admit their children as athletes, even when they didn’t play the sport at all, or bought their way into an elaborate scheme to cheat on college entrance exams. 

 

The indictments came as a shock, but partly because wealth runs so rampant in my school’s community that breaking the law just isn’t necessary. As U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said when he announced the indictments in March, "donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter" is the legal quid pro quo. Many of my peers have their family names on university buildings or are associated with renowned scholarships. 

 

Even those a few rungs less wealthy still pay enormous amounts to give their children an edge. My high school, Sacred Heart Preparatory, charges an annual tuition of $39,700. 

 

Why would a parent pay well more than $150,000 for their child’s high school education? “They knew they were paying for my name college,” said my classmate, Alle Cacchione. 

 

And it works — not as well as outright bribery, but they still get their foot in the door. In 2016, Stanford University accepted just 4.7% of students who applied to become undergraduates. But among my classmates who applied to Stanford, the acceptance rate was far higher — 39.3%. Similarly, my class had a 44.2% acceptance rate to the University of Southern California, compared to the University’s 16.5% acceptance rate that year. 

 

Which begs the question: Why is it so important for these parents to get their children to get into one of these schools? Partly to ensure their children stay well off — the average Stanford graduate will make more than double the national median household income in his or her mid-career, $114,000 — and partly because a child’s elite university is one of Silicon Valley’s ultimate status symbols, a prize to be waved around at cocktail parties.

 

The bribes, then, crack open a window onto the culture of my super-wealthy, ultra-competitive community, where even parents who stay within the law go to extraordinary lengths to finagle their kids into the best schools. They inflict pressure — sometimes explicit, often implicit, but always intense — on their children to win admission to a top-tier university, even if that’s not what their children want. Meanwhile, their obsessive rigging of the system helps bar less fortunate Americans from top colleges and their influential alumni networks.

My story

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I remember my eager anticipation on my first day at Sacred Heart. As I walked through campus and admired the bright brick building contrasted to the open blue sky, I understood why they called it the S-econd H-appiest P-lace on earth. 

My father warned me I would be different than many of my classmates, but at first I didn’t see that. Sure, I had a grueling commute—up to an hour each way, sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on highway 280. But we all shared similar goals and ambitions. We all attended a college prep high school because we’d been preparing for the same future since we were as young as four years old. 

Raised in Petaluma, California, my father was the first in his family to go to college. When he shared this dream with his father, who had worked in construction his whole life, he responded, “What makes you think you’re so goddamn special?” 

 

Nevertheless, my father persisted. He transferred from the local Santa Rosa Junior College to California State University, Chico and graduated as a top recruit to the Big 8 accounting firms. He quickly rose up the ranks, and became a director at Cisco and is now retired. 

 

Similarly, my mother’s father immigrated from Gujarat, India with no more than $20 in his back pocket. My mother graduated college at 19, and went on to excel, most recently as the President of Verizon Smart Communities. 

 

My parents both embody the American Dream—building their own success from the ground up without a foundation of wealth to support them. They understand the hard work it takes to be successful in this country. They understand the value of the dollar, and that it often takes money to make money. My parents wanted me to have more opportunities than they did and to ensure my financial security. They believed a prestigious education would be one of my biggest assets, and they started my private school education early. 

The side door

At Sacred Heart, the signs of wealth became too glaring to ignore. BMWs, Audis, and Range Rovers frequented the school parking lot. Spring break invitations to travel to family houses in Cabo San Lucas by private jet were handed out. Our school spirit week featured a relay race that incorporated $1,800 hover-boards. I soon found myself trying to keep up, or rather fit in, changing where I went shopping, asking for extra allowance to spend on expensive dinners, and pretending not to be shocked every time I entered a gated mansion. 

When college applications rolled around, I found myself competing with a different level of wealth and access—the kind that donated buildings and scholarships, and held positions on the boards of the most elite universities. 

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To Katherine Lee, a Sacred Heart and USC alumna, it wasn't enough for her go through expensive tutoring to raise her grades and SAT scores. It wasn't enough to have a private college counsellor help her shape her college essay. No, Lee felt she had to get a recommendation from a board member of every single university she applied to. Her parents had close friends on the boards of Columbia, Boston College, NYU, and USC, and they encouraged her to utilize them. 

 

So did one of her classmates, Betsy, who also asked that her last name be withheld. Betsy said without such a letter, she would have felt at a disadvantage because "everyone else" had one. Her parents asked her to choose from the many board members they knew at USC. 

 

“It was just the thing that everyone was doing,” said Betsy. 

 

A small community, Sacred Heart engendered an open and rather nosy culture where parents and classmates had a sense of others’ scores, grades, and connections. Therefore, even without hard evidence of swindling the system, there was often indication. 

 

“If you have parents who are loaded and you don’t have the grades to get in, people put two and two together,” said Betsy. 

 

On Naviance, an online college assessment platform, students were also taught how to compare themselves to one another. Naviance places your GPA and test scores on a chart and shows your dot relative to where other alumni were rejected, waitlisted, or accepted. 

 

“You’d be able to look at the dot and see the outlier,” said Betsy, “and be like, ‘Their dad donated a building.’”  

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The sacred heart experience

Many of my classmates didn’t have direct connections or copious wealth to guarantee their spots at the best schools, so they resorted to other available resources: counseling, tutors, and test prep. 

 

Like many students in the Silicon Valley, Betsy remembers the stress and emotional trauma she faced in her junior year. After driving to her private college counselor, paid for by her parents in addition to her school counselor, she’d get ripped apart for an hour and told she wasn’t adequate for these schools. Then Betsy drove back to school, cried for 45 minutes, and went back to class. At the end of the day, she’d go to AJ Tutoring for standardized test prep. It felt like a never-ending cycle. 

 

Many Sacred Heart families paid thousands of dollars to consult with an outside college counselor, even though our high school provides free college counseling to each student. Students also paid upwards of $5,000 for tutoring. Additionally, applying to multiple colleges and sending scores added up. My family paid $2,984 just in application fees. 

Of course, tutoring can’t guarantee top scores or grades. “Parents can spend thousands of dollars on SAT or ACT tutors, and their child’s score still wouldn’t be exceptional,” said Sacred Heart alumna Grace Battles. 

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But they add to the pressure. “We were given all the resources,” said Betsy’s classmate, Aubrey Gavello. “So, we don’t have any excuses. We don’t have a ton of obstacles to overcome to get into these schools. It’s expected.”

 

Now we’re learning that some students, who despite receiving a prep-school education, tutoring, and counseling, feared they would still fail to gain admission. So, they paid and cheated their way in. 

 

Betsy didn’t have this option. She was accepted into USC — but in a second-best way. She wasn't allowed to start in the fall semester, but instead was offered a "spring admittance," meaning that if she attended another college and maintained good grades, she could matriculate to USC in the spring semester.

 

She wasn't just disappointed. She was also embarrassed. As a qualified legacy, she was supposed to get in. 

 

“It’s such a show. It’s also all the parents talk about junior to senior year. It’s all you think about. It’s all you’re dedicating your time to.”

 

Parents, too, carry stress and guilt. After she got her backhanded acceptance, Betsy recalled, she was bawling her eyes out. Then her mother came into her room, also crying.

 

“She told me she was sorry they don’t donate money to USC. She literally apologized for not donating money.” Betsy shook her head in disbelief. 

No alternative

College decisions are during a formidable time in our development when parents still bear a substantial influence over us. 

 

"I went because my mom went," said Lee. She is happy she chose USC, mostly because of the friendships she made, but now she wonders what her life could have been like if she instead had followed her passion and attended a trade school for art and design. But coming from Sacred Heart, she knew that wasn’t an option. 

 

“I never would’ve even considered going to a trade school,” she said. 

 

Sacred Heart never promoted community college, trade school, or other alternatives to a four-year college, but Lee wishes Sacred Heart had talked to her about other options — and made them seem viable and respectable.

 

“Most Sacred Heart students are here to go to a four-year college," said Sacred Heart's Principal, Dr. Jennifer Whitcomb. "If a family can’t afford this, our college counselors talk about other options on an individual basis.” 

 

Lee considered taking a gap year to rest and recover from personal matters. However, she felt like she had to go straight to college — and not just to any college, but to USC. Her parents, she said, “passively pressured” her. They even encouraged her to turn down a full ride to NYU because they believed USC would provide better connections, setting her up for more career success. 

but they paid for my tuition

When I arrived at the University of Southern California I knew how some kids had gotten in, but I shrugged it off. I found myself regurgitating what my high school friends had told me. “Well, are you surprised? Their parents are on the Board of Trustees.” “Their mom donated three million dollars overnight.” “Say her last name aloud. Recognize it?” It was normalized. This happened all the time.

 

I was also told to be grateful to these students. Their parents’ donations helped fund my full scholarship — the entire $58,262 tuition is paid for. 

 

Of the 2018 entering first-year class, 23% received a merit-based scholarship, and over 60% received some form of financial assistance, according to USC Admissions. USC’s class of 2022 enrolled 17% first-generation students, meaning they are the first in their families to attend college. USC has scholarship programs specifically for such students and for low-income students. 

 

But USC also takes the “Trojan Family” seriously. Of this year’s freshman class 19% were legacies. That’s a rate 25% higher than at Harvard.

 

A federal lawsuit challenging race-based affirmative action has forced Harvard to reveal what it previously kept under lock and key. Legacy students, recruited athletes, and children of faculty, account for 29% of enrolled students.  While only about 5% of all applicants to Harvard get admitted, 33.6% of legacy applicants gained admission

 

Chad Coffman’s book, Affirmative Action for the Rich, dispels the belief that legacy admissions increase alumni donations. This form of privilege only widens the education gap in the United States. Indeed, at five Ivy League schools and 33 other colleges, including USC, the share of students from the top 1% is greater than the bottom 60%, according to the The New York Times.

A Very different high school experience 

Of course, it’s not normal to think you need to have a letter of recommendation from a university trustee, or to have parents who know several board members or who donate buildings. 

 

At La Follette High, a public high school in Madison, Wisconsin, where police officers are stationed in the halls, nearly one in ten students drop out before graduation. 

 

Taylor Wilcox was one of the only students from La Follette to leave the state of Wisconsin to attend college in California. 

 

All the teachers at her high school, including the support staff, encouraged her not to go to USC. They suggested she go to a community college for two years and then attend a four-year college. It would be much cheaper and she would still get the same degree. 

 

Wilcox will be $80-100,000 in debt when she graduates from USC. 

 

When asked if her college degree was worth it, she said, “I feel like I made the right decision every day — except the days that I look at my student loans.”

 

Wilcox takes the full amount of federal student aid loans, which have lower interest rates, and then each semester, she also takes the maximum out from a private credit union in Wisconsin, around $12,000. Federal aid takes into consideration that her parents don’t contribute to her college fund. 

 

However, at the end of the day, even after attending a prestigious University, Wilcox believes she will remain at a disadvantage to her wealthy peers. 

 

“When you see reality here, you just accept these kids are always going to get better job opportunities than me,” said Wilcox. “They’re always going to be able to take that great unpaid internship in New York because their parents are going to pay their rent.”

 

She feels they’re always going to be ahead. 

 

“It sucks just how much straight up work I have to do,” said Wilcox. “And even at school when they’re going to Coachella for the weekend, I stay home and work four shifts, because I can’t give up that money and pay for it.”

 

While Wilcox is working multiple jobs in college, she also has less time to dedicate to her school work. 

 

“They don’t have to work or do anything else and they’ll still coast through life thriving.”

 

Betsy agrees, noting that the connections and privilege don’t stop at admissions. As a senior applying to jobs, Betsy noticed many of her peers using their family’s connections to get employment at elite firms and companies even if they weren’t as qualified. 

 

“It’s not logical,” she said. “You don’t throw your kid into a marathon after they’ve been running once a week, or skipping laps.”

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At Sacred Heart, there was a phrase we heard all the time: “You’ll be happy wherever you end up.” 

 

This phrase felt anything but reassuring. In a community where status and name means everything, this idea was sardonic. 

 

Our self-worth was dependent on the name of a school. I dreamed of wearing an Ivy League on National College Decision Day—a high school tradition to show off your college gear.

I look at my high school and college experience with a new perspective, understanding that many Americans are precluded from our prestigious institutions. At high prices, most people don’t have access to our education. They can’t afford tutoring and private college counselors. They didn’t have access to a Richard Singer. As long as these side doors remain open, our education system will continue benefiting those at the top. 

*Update on 7/225/2019: The Palatellas' son is currently enrolled in USC classes for the fall semester.