Pamela Donnelly doesn’t pretend to know actress Lori Loughlin anymore. But 37 years ago, when their dressing rooms on the show The Edge of Night were side-by-side, she says Loughlin was as friendly as she was beautiful.
“There is nothing you can say about her other than she’s America’s sweetheart and has been for all these years,” Donnelly says. “I think that’s why this was particularly shocking to people.”
That shock came March 13 when Loughlin turned herself in to the FBI, among the dozens charged in the country’s largest ever university admissions cheating and bribery scandal. More than 30 parents are accused of paying an admissions consultant to cheat on admissions exams or to bribe coaches to accept their children as fake athletic recruits. In some cases, the parents had their kids’ faces Photoshopped onto the bodies of real athletes.
Loughlin, along with her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly paid to have their two daughters — Olivia Jade and Isabella — accepted as recruits for the University of Southern California’s crew team, even though they’d never actually participated in the sport.
That’s why Donnelly’s tone changes when you ask her about Olivia Jade, a famous social media influencer, and the video she posted before the scandal became public. In it, she says: “I do want the experience of game days and partying. I don’t really care about school … as you guys all know.”
“Yeah it’s ugly,” Donnelly says. “It hits me right in the stomach.”
The consultant, Rick Singer, pleaded guilty to four charges, including racketeering and conspiracy. While several coaches and parents like actress Felicity Huffman have also pleaded guilty, others, like Loughlin, say they’re innocent. Now federal prosecutors in the U.S. are pursuing more parents, prompting speculation about which Hollywood celebrities or high-powered executives might be charged next.
With consulting comes offers of big money
Donnelly says it’s no secret that for years the rich and powerful have been buying their children’s way into top schools, through large donations. But increasingly, she says, parents are resorting to more nefarious means, which she has seen first-hand. In the 1990s, Donnelly gave up acting and founded Valley Prep Tutoring Services and GATE College System, two companies that help prepare students to get into university. It didn’t take long, she says, before rich parents were sidling up to her waving dollar bills.
“I have had people approach me and say ‘how much to get my kid into UCLA?’ I had people approach me and say ‘how much for you, Pamela, to write my student’s essay?'”
The most recent accusation — that pharmaceutical billionaires from China paid $6.5 million to get their daughter into Stanford — demonstrates the size and international scope of the scandal, which Donnelly believes will keep growing.
“More than a year down the road, we’ll continue to see layer after layer peeling back,” Donnelly says. “The scandal is, I think, a tipping point as we move into a deeper and deeper understanding of what has been wrong, but what we can make more right.”
The revelations have been particularly galling to students from underprivileged backgrounds, who’ve had to fight and scrape against the odds to be even considered for admission.
As Shaveonte Graham walks down West 60th Street, she can’t help but smile. It’s been five years since she moved away from her old neighbourhood, but it sounds exactly the same. A chicken clucks in a nearby backyard, an ice cream truck chimes as it cruises up and down the street.
“They come all day … and at night,” she laughs.
If you close your eyes, you’d think you were in the suburbs. But it isn’t. Her old house — a squat grey duplex — is in an area known as South Central Los Angeles. The children playing in the large driveway of her former home remind her of her grade school days. To escape the noise of her seven siblings, Graham says she would get up at every day at 4 a.m. to study, then after school and on weekends she’d go to work to help support the family.
“That’s how I got into college,” she says, smiling.
No one from Graham’s family had ever gone to university. Not only did Graham graduate from USC, she’ll be starting medical school in the fall. So when she heard about how families with money and clout had been caught paying bribes for their children to attend USC, the inequalities of the education system were laid bare.
“Of course it makes you feel like it’s not fair,” Graham says.
Donnelly says that unfairness has long been plaguing the education system, and it’s getting worse. With university tuition and competition skyrocketing, students who don’t have rich parents are being left behind. Many American high schools have counsellors who help students apply to university, but often those who need it most have to do without.
College counsellors in short supply
“The bottom 20 per cent of districts in the United States don’t even have a college admissions counsellor on staff because the budgets are so constrained for money,” Donnelly says. “That’s the first thing they cut.”
She says the recommended ratio of university admissions counsellors to students is 250 to one.
“The national average is 482 to one,” Donnelly says. “Chicago is 700 to one, LA: 1000 to one.”
Most students can’t rely on their parents’ financial backing to grease their way into coveted university spots, so Donnelly says the best way to help the greatest number of public school students is to prepare them for university entrance at an earlier age. Her company, GATE College System, offers a digital curriculum for school districts, which supports students in Grade 9 through Grade 12.
“The kid gets motivated when they’re 14, so by the time they’re 17 the horse hasn’t left the barn. They actually have a shot.”
Alayda Young, 17, thought she’d never have a shot at getting into USC. Young grew up within sight of the campus, but it might as well have been on the moon. Her single mother had three children to take care of, and didn’t always have a steady job.
“She got laid off a few times and we didn’t know if we were going to be able to pay rent, we didn’t know we were going to be able to pay the bills,” Young says.
Then she heard of a multi-year university preparatory program run by USC called the McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative.
“They come in in sixth grade and we work with them,” says Kim Thomas-Barrios, vice-president of educational partnerships at USC. “They spend seven years’ worth of Saturdays studying math, English, science, learning about the pathway to college. Their parents are with us on Saturdays as well.”
The program costs about $2 million a year, raised by private donations, to support the 1,000 students enrolled in NAI, plus several million per year depending on how many scholarships are offered.
Thanks to seven years of extra classes every Saturday and every summer, Young earned a full scholarship to USC.
At a recent ceremony to honour the NAI scholarship winners, Young looked around campus, knowing some of her future classmates will only be attending because their parents were prepared to bribe or cheat on their behalf.
“It’s frustrating in the sense that people just throw money at their problems, knowing that I could never do that,” Young says with a rueful smile.
On the other hand, Young says, she suspects the students whose parents broke the law couldn’t do what she did just to get in. And that, she hopes, will eventually pay off.
“I actually worked my butt off,” Young says. “And I deserved the seat that I got.”
This story originally appeared on CBC