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During a week in which it was revealed that deep pockets and dexterity with photoshop might actually be more useful for getting accepted into an elite college than studying for the SATs, the question that seemed to dominate dinner parties, text chains, and slack rooms was simply, “Why…even do that?” Disgust and shock are easy enough to process, but getting a grasp on why wealthy parents who can legally game the college process with tutors, letters of recommendation, and donated science wings, would resort to committing fraud is a unique kind of mental gymnastics.
In Los Angeles, this question is further confounded by fame; famous parents indicted and their famous spawn come under further scrutiny. For the children of parents implicated who have careers in acting, YouTube, and influencing underway, the risk feels all the more bogus and mind-boggling. Like the other privileged kids involved in the scandal, it’s unlikely that the shape of their lives would be drastically altered if they got into an average school, a brand name school, or no school at all. Unlike them, they are already successfully in pursuit of careers that don’t seem to lean heavily on a college experience anyway. Doesn’t committing white collar crime feel especially unnecessary?
I wonder a lot about the role of college when I interview young talent in LA for various publications. They are often children of celebrities and have frequently been “working” in the ever-widening definition of show business since pre-adolescence. In many cases, they’ve been booked and earning money long before they’re staring down the SAT. I’m a believer in the opportunity college presents to introduce people to ideas and skills that are relevant to building careers and empathetic humans, but even I have come away from these meetings wondering what these kids imagine college might offer to them. Already experiencing success, and with so many tools at their disposal—money, travel, access, real time business experience, and the kinds of social networks that are one reason people seek out elite schools in the first place—what purpose could college possibly serve?
Olivia Jade Giannulli wondered this herself, in a now-infamous YouTube video in which she declared she doesn’t “Really care about school.”
It’s a thankless show of privilege for which she later apologized, but there’s an ecosystem behind such a statement that could make someone say it to more than a million subscribers without even pausing to pay higher education lip service, as Americans typically do. With loose similarities to Silicon Valley’s embrace of young people who launch startups over attending college (very loose—Giannulli’s makeup tutorials are no Theranos) there’s a subculture in LA—with roots in show business—that sees college more as a “nice to have” than a “necessity.” “In LA, there are a number of notable people that didn’t go to college who are massive successes,” says one mother in the city. “Not to mention that college is expensive. As time goes by, it may become optional or obsolete.” And indeed, it is easy to look at (or is it pine after?) the photos of the Giannulli sisters and their cohort on yachts in Italy, or touting partnerships in Fiji and wonder how they could feel a sense of urgency that it all might slip away if they don’t ace their Sociology final.
So what, then, could drive parents of fame-courting kids who likely won’t spend that much time in college, to break the law to get them into a certain kind of school? Status and herd mentality, say LA kids and parents. Among certain cohorts, a brand name college is no different from an area code, a G-wagon, a designer bag — and securing a place at one is a given (which may be why there don’t appear to have been second thoughts about breaking the law to do it). “The parents may also think college is something to fall back on, but I think it doesn’t have anything to do with the actual degree, and more to do with the stature of going there,” says one woman who recently matriculated at an L.A. private high school. “But the way the kids are thinking about it is: This is just for fun. It’s a network of friends and people from a familiar background. They’re not there to make new friends. USC in particular has a reputation as a cool school.” She adds that unless you have Hadid-level name recognition (and even Gigi went to the New School for a year), it’s presumptuous to assume that you don’t need higher education—plus, you’ll feel some FOMO. So when you go, you’re going to a “Cool school.”
USC has the logistical benefit of being in a city where kids can continue working in entertainment, but of course, it’s not the only school that can make that claim. Some parents and students point to the prowess of USC’s network as an extension of Los Angeles’s own elite. In a place where preschool waitlists start in-vitro, and being someone’s best friend can land you lucrative career opportunities, advancing a network, even if it’s the one you were born into, is subconscious.“Parents recognize that there is value in your social circle,” says one person familiar with the private school landscape. “In this town, it’s all about who you know.”
If anything, holding up fame against the college scandal reinforces higher education’s cultural currency; an old school badge of honor even as privileged paths to adulthood shift around it. “It’s one thing to say: you have the most followers or the most contracts,” says one parent of a high school-er in L.A. “But there’s something very definitive about getting into a prestigious school. There’s something very black and white about it. It can’t be taken away from you, and it validates you no matter what.”