LOS ANGELES — Anthony Ramirez worried about how the admissions officers at his dream school, the University of Southern California, would judge him. His home lies a short drive from the school, but in his neighborhood, there are far more high school dropouts than college graduates.
Neither of his parents, immigrants from Chiapas, Mexico, attended college, and none of his older siblings finished. The family of six lives in a cozy, two-bedroom house, with Anthony and three siblings sharing a small bedroom. Even though he is a talented student who pours his spare time into learning computer coding, he was worried he would be judged for his modest upbringing.
“When I first started to apply, at first I thought it was going to be equal,” Ramirez said. But then he thought of wealthier friends with connections that landed them internships, providing fodder for polished college essays. He wrote his on his work with a program for teens in poverty. “When colleges look at [my application], they’ll see me probably as this kid in the ghetto, rather than somebody who’s prestigious and professional.”
For students who have grown up in the shadow of USC and were fighting against all odds to get in, the college admissions scandal that broke last month struck a deeply personal note. Fifty people were arrested, many of them wealthy Angelenos who prosecutors allege paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to help their children cheat on college entrance exams and bribe coaches to get them into USC as athletes in sports they never played.
Among those accused in the sprawling scandal: actress Lori Loughlin, whose daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli got into USC by pretending to be a collegiate rower. The teenager once quipped in a YouTube video that she didn’t “really care about school.” Loughlin pleaded not guilty April 15.
“It’s just like the top 1 percent just continuously staying the top 1 percent,” said Ramirez’s classmate Asriel Hayes, an artist and musician from Westmont whose top choice was USC. While Hayes frets about being able to afford college, he marvels that some families could not only afford tuition but also have enough money to bribe college coaches. “They just spent their money to get in, and they can just pay the tuition freely.”
The admissions scandal provided a window into the lengths wealthy parents are willing to go so their children can win a seat at selective colleges and universities. But it has also spurred discussions about all the legal ways wealthy children have advantages in the college admissions process: access to better public and private schools, the ability to afford private college consultants and test prep. Experts say all kinds of factors work against students in poverty. They are more likely to experience destabilizing life events that interrupt their education, such as homelessness, hunger and community violence.
In a world in which the children of the wealthy had so many advantages, where did that leave students like Ramirez and Hayes?
For college-bound high school seniors, winter and spring are filled with anxiety and possibility as they await word from their schools. The Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, the magnet school Ramirez and Hayes attend, is no different. Many days brought elation or devastation, depending on the news.
In the school’s College Center, where the walls are plastered with college pennants, a calendar hangs with March marked as “College Decision Month” in marker. Above it, a message in curly letters: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
In mid-March, Ramirez, Hayes and nearly a quarter of their senior classmates were awaiting letters that were set to be mailed March 21, a Thursday — but it was anybody’s guess when the letters would reach the homes of students. Two days later, the decisions would be posted online.
Candice Mackey, the school’s energetic and forceful college counselor, said the admissions scandal rattled her to her core.
“Here are my students and so many others who are generally working hard and putting in the effort day in and day out trying to manage all of things that are expected of them,” Mackey said. “There’s a feeling of just disappointment and disgust because it’s just like this is unfair.”
Hayes regards many of the measures used by wealthy parents to give their children an advantage as cheating. An artist, the 17-year-old Hayes said he fares poorly on standardized tests. His family does not have money for private test prep.
“When you’re just getting tutors and you have the money and time to pay for the stuff to get in . . . it’s just like cheating, period,” Hayes said.
It was something Ramirez, 18, saw at the magnet school, which draws students from rich and poor families from every corner of the county.
“A lot of people have legs up. . . . I don’t really have any legs to begin with because none of my family has gone to college,” Ramirez said.
Research has shown that students from low-income families face significantly longer odds of getting into elite schools. Looking at data from 1999 to 2013, researchers found that children whose parents are in the top 1 percent of income distribution are 77 times as likely to attend elite colleges than children whose parents are in the bottom 20 percent.
“The American Dream has been distressingly out of reach for a lot of people,” said John Friedman, a Brown University economist who co-directs the group that crunched the numbers. “The disparities in access are really quite striking.”
Only part of that can be attributed to college admissions practices, Friedman said. He chalks up the bulk of those disparities to other factors: Poor children tend to grow up in environments that can put a dent in their academic preparation, dealing with the stress of unstable finances, homelessness and hunger. Most significantly, they are far more likely to attend schools lacking the resources to address their needs.
Ramirez was getting nervous — rejection notices had already arrived from two University of California campuses.
“I’m the youngest, so I’m kind of like the last shot,” Ramirez said. “It kind of added more to my nervousness and my anxiety when it comes to will I even make it.”
He had his eye on one of USC’s most competitive programs: an academy that merges arts, technology and business instruction to help students create their own technology start-ups. Ramirez is deeply involved in Teens Exploring Technology (TXT for short), a program that teaches young men of color growing up in poverty how to develop their own apps. As part of his USC application, he shared plans for an app that would allow teens to communicate anonymously with health educators so they could ask questions they might be too embarrassed to pose to their parents.
Ramirez arrived home late after a TXT class and dug through the mail — nothing yet from USC. In the living room, where a framed picture of the Virgin Mary hangs near a large Mexican flag, Anthony’s father, Luis Ramirez, spoke warmly of his son.
“I am proud of him . . . for chasing his dreams,” Luis Ramirez said in Spanish. He put his hands on his heart and said it would be the greatest — “lo máximo” — if his son could attend the university down the street.
Across town, Hayes, who rides a bus an hour to school, arrived home and checked the mail — nothing from USC. His father, Stacy Hayes, who works for the Los Angeles Unified School District in the facilities division, is a USC graduate who finished his degree in 2015 after a three-decade hiatus. A framed photo of him in a cap and gown hangs on the living-room wall.
Hayes hoped to join USC’s Popular Music Program.
In his neatly kept bedroom, he had professional recording equipment at the foot of his bed, much of it purchased with money he crowdsourced on GoFundMe. It was from this makeshift studio that he composed the music for a film commissioned by Nike — a lively and serious violin composition that played underneath a track of a woman reading a poem. For his audition at USC, he sang “Ode to Danye,” a song he wrote about the son of a Ferguson, Mo., activist who died last year.
Hayes’s family is not rich, but his mother, Ericka, worked hard to deliver opportunities that children from wealthier families might take for granted. She found free music lessons for her children and sought to get them the best education — even though it means her son has to wake up at 5:20 a.m. to catch a bus.
In the chaos of the college admissions process, Stacy Hayes, a pastor, said he leaned on his faith. Whether his son was accepted or rejected by USC, “It’s because there’s a reason and a purpose behind it.”
“That will be God’s will for him.”
The following day in school again bristled with tension, as students awaited word not just from USC, but also from the city’s other prized university: the University of California at Los Angeles. In Ramirez’s afternoon economics class, students could scarcely focus and pleaded with the teacher to postpone a quiz. One girl asked whether they could have a “group cry.” They settled instead on a “group scream,” and in the middle of the school day, they let out a cathartic roar.
After school, Ramirez headed home and Hayes went to band practice. Ramirez checked the mail again: still nothing. Hayes’s parents texted him the same: no letter.
Ramirez’s mother made him tortilla and eggs that he wolfed down standing in the kitchen before heading out to catch his school’s production of “West Side Story.” He returned home after dark and switched on his laptop. USC had sent him an email telling him to check the status of his application. He opened it, then yelled for his parents and siblings to join him in the living room. There it was on the screen.
“Dear Anthony,” it began. “Congratulations! I am pleased to offer you admission to the University of Southern California.”
Hayes got an email from USC the following day while at the movie theater to catch the horror film “Us,” written and directed by Jordan Peele. He logged on to the website to learn his fate: rejected.
“Honestly, it’s not the end of the world,” Hayes said in an interview the following week. He posted a cheeky photo of himself in a Stanford sweatshirt on Instagram later that day. The caption? “I’m repping Stanford because USC don’t know me!”
The next week brought better news for Hayes.
“I GOT INTO BERKLEEEEEE!!!!!” he wrote in a gleeful text message. Berklee College of Music in Boston had seen his promise. “This was the path I was supposed to take.”
In the end, even that news was bittersweet: Hayes plans to attend the college, but he is still not certain how his family will afford it.