By Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) - The U.S. college bribery scandal has unleashed angst and fury among parents, students and admissions experts, as an unprecedented criminal investigation draws attention to the privileges afforded to wealthy Americans.
Hollywood actors and business executives are among 50 people charged with taking part in the largest college admissions scandal in U.S. history, which involved getting students into elite, highly selective universities by paying bribes and cheating the admissions process.
Ordinary Americans were not amused.
"I've worked my butt off for four years trying to make myself seem really presentable, studying two hours a week for the SAT (entrance exam) and getting all As in my classes," said Connor Finn, 18, a senior at John Marshall High school in Los Angeles. "And then the fact that people would just pay hundreds of thousands of dollars and without the hard work is really not rewarding at all," he said.
Finn's father, Michael, said the teenager applied to a dozen universities, including University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where the daughter of one couple charged in the scandal was enrolled. Connor is still waiting for a response, his father said.
Dan Raffety, a college counselor at the Elgin Academy prep school near Chicago, said he had a student with superb grades, perfect entrance exam scores and a resume full of extracurricular activities who was denied entry at Georgetown.
He said he was angered to think academically deserving students may have lost a spot to cheaters.
ACCESS TO POWER
Besides academic excellence, elite schools offer access for their graduates to a network of people in power.
"At some point this isn't really about education. This is about trying to get access," Rafferty said.
Many elite universities give preference to "legacy" applicants: the children of those who previously attended. In other cases, major financial gifts, including multimillion-dollar donations to construct buildings on campus, pave the way for the privileged. Both practices are legal.
The competition can be fierce and seem unfair even to people of privilege, however.
One wealthy Massachusetts parent said his son had excellent credentials but still was denied entry to Ivy League Brown University, even after the family spent thousands of dollars for a tutor to improve the boy's entrance exam scores.
Meanwhile, he said students whom he considered lesser academic talents gained an advantage by going to private prep schools, whose business model is to get students into elite universities.
"It's a booming business because parents are the ripest target in the world. They'll pay and do anything for their kids. And this (scandal) is an example of things gone awry," said the father, who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak freely.
His son chose to stay in public school and ended up at Tufts University, a highly rated school that nonetheless lacks Ivy League cachet.
LOOKING FOR DIVERSITY, TOO
The top universities have such an excess of qualified applicants they could limit their candidates to the best students with perfect entrance exam scores, admissions experts say.
They are also looking for diversity, accepting high achieving poor and minority students who cannot afford tutors and coaches.
"This scandal, most people would agree, is ridiculous," said Natasha Kumar Warikoo, a graduate professor of education at Harvard and author of "The Diversity Bargain," which examines how students at elite universities view affirmative action.
"But beyond that we don't have a consensus in the United States about what fair is," she added.
UCLA student Sandy Situ, 21, the daughter of immigrants, said the scandal had made her think about the uphill battle for those who are unable to attend the schools of their choice.
"I think about the resources that were taken away from them, the chances that they could have achieved something better, all the people who were turned away for people who could just pay their way in," Situ said. "What a sad moment this is for America."
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Rollo Ross; editing by Bill Tarrant and Rosalba O'Brien)