Friday, March 15, 2019

The Freshman Fifteen Thousand*: or Buying Your Way into the College of Your Choice

*$15,000 is allegedly the amount paid by actors Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy to allow their daughter unlimited time to complete her SAT exam. 

I’m sure I’m not the only parent truly ticked off by the college admissions scandal that has rocked our sense of fair play in higher education. Everyone who’s been through the harrowing process of nagging kids to study for standardized tests, fill out applications, gather letters of support, and observe deadlines has got to be feeling plenty angry that the rich and famous are bypassing all of that. Sure, we always suspected that influence played its part, that the glamour of a celebrity parent or the hope that a zillionaire might endow a building could pave the way for an offspring to be welcomed onto a prestigious campus. And, if we enrolled our own kids in SAT prep courses, we knew we were bettering their chances because we could afford to do so.

Still, I wouldn’t have guessed that some parents, in cahoots with crooked test prep professionals and bribe-able college officials, would go to such egregious lengths to game the system. Like having their kids’ SATs taken by ringers. And helping those same kids to pose as competitive athletes, sometimes in sports they’ve never actually played, thereby gaining them entrance to  elite schools like USC and UCLA. (Woe to the aspiring student athlete who loses a place on the squad to make room for these bogus applicants.)

I can think of few movies that deal with the college application process, maybe because it’s generally more grueling than dramatic. There is, though, the segment of Legally Blonde in which the bubbly and curvaceous Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), a Beverly Hills gal with a college degree in fashion merchandising, is accepted into Harvard Law. Her ace in the hole is an admissions video that plays up her considerable attributes by posing her in a bikini. (She admits she got “a Coppola” to direct this masterpiece.) But Legally Blonde being a good-natured comedy, Elle turns out to be smart as well as sexy, and a credit to her future profession.

Most Hollywood movies that deal with college life don’t give us a chance to wonder how the students got there. In The Graduate, we know all about Benjamin Braddock’s college successes—as a student, an athlete, and a campus leader—but we are never encouraged to question the strings his parents pulled to have him admitted into that east coast bastion of learning in the first place.  The lives of the two main characters in Love Story revolve around the venerable Harvard campus. Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) is a wealthy young man, a scholar and a jock, who was probably helped to enter Harvard by way of his legacy status. Jenny (Ali MacGraw) is a smart-as-a-whip young woman from a working-class home who’s now working her way through Radcliffe. How hard did she have to push to get accepted? What rich kid did she displace? That’s not what this schmaltzy film is all about.

A very different look at college life, but one that is dear to my heart, is Harold Lloyd’s 1925 silent classic, The Freshman. This film, partially shot on the USC campus, looks at college as a place of hijinks, formal dances, and football games, where education definitely takes a back seat to social life. Lloyd’s lovably inept “Speedy” character, a new arrival on campus, is determined to find popularity as a football hero. Instead, he is recruited to take the place of the tackling dummy he’s accidentally destroyed. And his attempts to plan the big dance are equally disastrous. Still, he’s ultimately a winner, unlike those parents who thought they could buy their children college glory.

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