PBS NewsHour


Students say college admissions scandal 'degraded' system

Outrage has swirled since federal prosecutors charged 50 people, including CEOs and high-profile celebrities, in an intricate scheme to secure college admission for their children through extensive cheating and bribery. High school students share their perspectives on the scandal and broader inequalities in education, and John Yang talks to Jayne Fonash, an independent college consultant.

AIRED: March 20, 2019 | 0:08:32

AMNA NAWAZ: It's now been a week since federal prosecutors pulled back the curtain on a college

admissions cheating and bribery scandal.

The scheme involved wealthy parents, a pair of actresses, including Lori Loughlin, business

leaders, and a college placement firm at the center of it all led by William Singer.

It bought students' admission into high-profile schools like Yale, UCLA, Georgetown, and the

University of Southern California.

USC said today it's blocking students associated with the scandal from registering for classes

for now.

The scandal has sparked a wider conversation, and John Yang will pick up on that in a moment.

But, first, let's hear from some high schoolers themselves.

Our Student Reporting Labs reached out around the country for our weekly segment Making

the Grade.

Here's what some of what they had to say.

ELEANOR WIRTZ, Student: It's easier to get into college if you're rich.

I feel like that's just a given.

Like, everyone knows that.

ANDY KEMP, Student: I feel like it really degraded the process, how, like, people try

so hard, and then others just like were able to pay someone to get in, and it, like, messed

up the whole system, and how it's not fair for everyone else, because some people just

don't have that money.

ELLE FROMM, Student: You know, maybe it used to be your parents donated a library.

And now it's you have got a fixer who bumps your SAT score up 400 points.

But, yes, I'm not that surprised.

BRIAN KING, Student: Our ACT scores are high, and theirs aren't, but that won't matter,

because they have enough money to just pay their way in.

FERNANDO CIENFUEGOS, Student: By the end of my senior year, I will have taken nine A.P.

courses, three SATs and two ACTs, but that won't even guarantee me an admissions opportunity

in the institution.

MADELYN CARLSTROM, Student: A lot of us have spent like our whole senior year and a lot

of time and energy and conversations and money trying to get into the schools that we see

best fit.

And to see that they can just look around and pick whichever one they want to go to,

and then just hand money over, and then they're in, is kind of disturbing.

ZIARA VICKS, Student: It upsets me, because my mom is a hardworking mom.

And, like, I'm going to be the first one that graduates from high school and go to college.

And it's just like I have to pave my way for college.

I have to make sure that I do -- I have got to grind so I can get into a college.

And they're just paying their way through.

Their parents are just like, oh, here you go, baby.


Like, that's not fair at all.

ARAL NEN JR, Student: I know people in the Lower Milwaukee area who work very hard at

their schoolwork, and they work so incredibly hard trying to get out of their situation.

And -- but they just can't because they have to go home and they have to care for their

family, and then they have to work two jobs to make ends meet.

And I feel like then to have somebody who doesn't do any of that come and pass you over

is just a big disrespect.

EMMA ERVIN, Student: There's future scientists, and lawyers, and doctors, and teachers that

aren't getting a shot because people like Lori Loughlin are just paying their way in

for their kids.

JOHN HARRISON, Student: Most of the people that I know don't have an extra $15,000 or

$20,000 to throw at someone like Singer to, you know, pay their way into college.

SARAH OLIVER, Student: My parents can't pay $500,000 to get me into any college I want.

So, that does put a lot of pressure on making sure that, like, all my grades are good, and

like GPA and everything.


ELIZABETH REIS PHILLIPS, Student: It kind of just almost demeans the meaning of what

a higher education is, because we like to hold it to a very high standard.

But if you can just pay your way in, if you have enough money, what does that truly mean?

JOHN YANG: The parents of most of the students we just heard from can't afford to hire a

private counseling company, like the one at the center of the scandal.

Instead, they rely on high school counselors, who, on average, each advise about 482 students.

Jayne Fonash was one of those counselors until very recently.

She was a counselor in the Loudoun County, Virginia, public schools for 24 years.

She is now an independent college consultant and president-elect of the National Association

for College Admission Counseling.

Jayne Fonash, thanks, and welcome.

JAYNE FONASH, President-Elect, National Association for College Admission Counseling: Thank you.

JOHN YANG: You hear those students.

And they all have -- they all talk like the system is stacked against them.

What do you say to them?

What do you say to their parents?

JAYNE FONASH: What I would say to them is, I would want to acknowledge the pressure that

they feel to get into what they perceive as the best college.

And it saddens me, because the process should be an adventure and a growing experience for

students and families.

There's more and more need for good high school counselors all over the country, because research

shows that students who have access to a counselor in high school and who can plan and go through

the process with the support of a good counselor are likely to be admitted and to be successful

as undergraduate students.

To their parents, I would say, ease back a little on the pressure, and remind your students

that, no matter where they go to college, they will have opportunities to grow, to have

internships, to be successful.

They will create their lives themselves, regardless of where they go to school.

JOHN YANG: What's the best support?

You talk about supporting the student through the process.

What's the best support that a student could get?

JAYNE FONASH: An example of good support that a student could receive is having access to

a counselor throughout high school, beginning conversations early on to be sure that they

are taking challenging courses, and being involved in some things in the community that

are important to them, and then, during junior and senior year, visiting schools and making

some informed decisions about schools where they would likely be successful and where

they would have a good chance at being admitted.

JOHN YANG: When you were in the Loudoun County public schools, how many students on average

would you be counseling at one time?

And how much support and attention could you give them?

JAYNE FONASH: Loudoun County is actually on the lower end of some of national numbers.

The ratio of counselors to students there is approximately 300, 320 to 1, which is lower

than the number that you cited earlier.

Those public school counselors are, however, responsible not only for post-high school

planning, but for mental health issues, academic advising, responding to family crises.

So the difficulty for a public high school counselor is that they wear many hats in any

given day, and cannot devote 100 percent of their time to college counseling.

That being said, they are great counselors, and they have the best interest of their students

in mind, and try to spend as much time as possible on each of those things that helps

to build a strong, confident, well-prepared student.

JOHN YANG: You're now an independent consultant.

Like not -- well, I mean, the independent consultant in this case, you don't do those


But what does an independent consultant do?

What support does an independent consultant provide?

JAYNE FONASH: So, as an independent consultant, I am available to work with individual students

at their request or that of their parents.

It is a private arrangement.

But many independent consultants also do volunteer work in their communities with first-generation

students, with community-based organizations.

And I hope to spend some of my time doing that as well.

Loudoun County, as you know, is a very well-endowed county.

There are lots of opportunities.

Our families enjoy lots of privileges, but there are still pockets of first-generation

students, students whose families don't have the access to other counseling, and those

are some of the students that I, along with other independent counselors, hope to serve

as well, along with all the good work that's being done by the public school counselors.

JOHN YANG: What can the system -- or how can the system be changed?

What can be done to make the students that we just heard in that tape spot feel that

it is a fair, level playing field?

JAYNE FONASH: So, you mentioned that I'm president-elect of the National Association for College Admission


We were founded over 80 years ago for the specific purpose of being sure that the college

admission process was ethical and that there was a level playing field for students to

go through this process.

So, while the recent indictments do focus on several unscrupulous players, we have 15,000

members, along with thousands more high school counselors and college admissions officers,

who do our work on a daily basis adhering to an ethics code that ensures that our behavior

and the opportunities for students are conducted in an ethical manner.

JOHN YANG: Jayne Fonash, thank you very much.

JAYNE FONASH: Thank you for having me.