A statue of George Mason stands in the heart of George Mason University's Fairfax, Va., campus. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Columnist

Bribes? Altered test scores? Fake résumés?

That’s not the world that Enas Al-Hadidi inhabits.

She’s seven weeks away from getting her nursing degree at George Mason University, an affordable and diverse school in Northern Virginia that offers some timely lessons for those ensnared in a jaw-dropping college-entrance bribery scandal.

Like many of the more than 24,000 undergraduate students who attend this largely commuter campus, Al-Hadidi has been baffled by the mania to get into brand-name schools that fueled the criminal charges against 50 wealthy parents, college coaches, test officials and admissions consultants.

“I just had this argument with my friend,” said Al-Hadidi, 23.

Both of them are immigrants from Jordan.

But her friend, who is from a wealthy family, goes to Georgetown University, where tuition is nearly $49,000 a year and where more than 80 percent of those who apply are turned away.

Al-Hadidi, who is not from a wealthy family, goes to George Mason, where in-state tuition is nearly $11,000 and about 70 percent of the students who apply get in.

“I keep telling him it’s just a name he’s paying for,” she said. “My degree is just as good as his. I can get a job, just as good as his job. I can be his boss someday. I don’t have to go to Georgetown for that.”

Georgetown is among half a dozen schools, including Yale, Stanford and UCLA, caught up in the scheme to get wealthy kids into college through hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, faked sports résumés and test scores achieved by ringers. The CEOs and celebrities charged are the Richie Riches of America, already wallowing in privilege.

George Mason is filled with strivers, not schemers. No one with money is struggling to get their kid into Mason. Yet it is a showcase of the American Dream, a haven for middle-class families seeking college degrees for their kids without taking out second mortgages or saddling their children with insane amounts of debt.

And this is a college for the children of immigrants, who are often the first in their families to get a degree.

These are my people — the first-generation kids whose parents didn’t understand why you have to pay to apply to a school, who asked, “What is this SAT and why are you calling in sick to take it?” My parents, Czech immigrants, sat back in wide-eyed wonder at the whole college process. They wouldn’t have had any idea who to bribe.

Most of Mason’s students live at home and commute to class, most of them have a job on the side, and many of them are appalled at the unfolding education scandal that shows how easily America’s 1 percenters can game the system to keep their spawn on top.

I was in the middle of this world when I went to one of the schools at the center of the scandal — the University of Southern California, which was also known as the University of Spoiled Children for a reason.

The white Porsches with vanity plates in the student parking garage, the kids who called their lawyer parents to get homework help and who went on spring break to Cancun and had internships at daddy’s office while I picked up extra waitress shifts over the summer. I knew the playing field wasn’t level.

But this?

“It’s just the rich getting richer,” said Byung Ho Hyun, 22, a business student who is also the first in his family to go to college.

“I’m taking a diversity class and we just read that if your parents went to Harvard, you have a 50 percent better chance of getting into Harvard, too,” he said. “But that’s not how it’s supposed to work in America.”

The scandal reveals the moral bankruptcy of the upper class.

“Why would you even want to go to a college that you know you couldn’t get into without bribes?” said an 18-year-old biology major whose grandparents came from Ecuador and who didn’t feel comfortable giving his name. “Didn’t they just tarnish their names right there?”

He knows plenty of kids who had straight A’s in their AP classes, student council gladiators who won debates, played sports, worked in their family’s grocery stores and still didn’t get into their Ivy League schools of choice.

The students whose parents cheated their way in? “They’re also taking spots from kids who should’ve been there, kids who worked hard to get there,” said a 19-year-old forensic science student, who didn’t get into his top-choice school and also didn’t feel comfortable giving his name.

He’s especially frustrated that these kids of the wealthy already had access to so much more than he had — from the start of the college-prep process.

“All of them had the best tutors, the best test prep,” he said. “Me? I just took the SAT on the fly, just walked in and took it. My parents didn’t sign me up for all kinds of expensive help.”

He’s happy at George Mason, he said, because he loves the work and believes it will get him where he wants to go, no gold-plated, ivy-covered degree necessary.

“In the end, it’s the coursework that matters, not the name.”

Rick Lee is already seeing that in the job offers that are rolling in during his senior year.

He’s an engineering student at Virginia Tech, visiting his friends at Mason, and he said the job offers he’s getting as he prepares to graduate are on par with everyone who is coming out of the name-brand schools.

“It’s what you put into it that sets you up for the rest of your career,” Lee said. “I’m seeing the same salary, the same offers, the same positions. It’s about the work.”

You might be able to bribe your way in, he said, but you can’t fake the years of work waiting there.

His friend Harrison Kim, 21, said it boils down to a betrayal of the core American value of equal opportunity.

“It’s parents abusing power and access they already have,” said Kim, a biology student.

And it’s everything America shouldn’t be.

Twitter: @petulad