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Felicity Huffman And 13 Others Plead Guilty In College Admissions Scandal


One sports coach and 13 parents have agreed to plead guilty in the college admissions scandal that federal investigators have called Operation Varsity Blues. One of them - Felicity Huffman, the star of the show "Desperate Housewives." Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Education team has been following the story and joins us now. Hi, Anya.


SHAPIRO: Tell us about this latest development with more than a dozen parents agreeing to plead guilty.

KAMENETZ: So the parents as well as one coach have agreed to plead guilty in connection with this scheme. And according to one of the plea agreements at least, they may serve a few months in jail as well as paying fines and restitution. And Felicity Huffman, the actress, as you heard, is one of the more high-profile people accused. But others, including Lori Loughlin, another actress from the TV show "Full House," is among those originally accused who is continuing to fight the charges.

SHAPIRO: What are we hearing from the parents?

KAMENETZ: Well, two of those who plead - pled guilty today issued very contrite statements. Huffman's statement reportedly said, I am in full acceptance of my guilt - deep regret and shame. And she also reiterated that her daughter had no idea.

SHAPIRO: This story has gotten so much attention, and it seems to have really resonated with students and parents. Why do you think it has had such a big impact?

KAMENETZ: In a word, Ari - schadenfreude. I think at this moment, whether you look at politics or society in general, there is a lot of concern about fraud, about misrepresentation, people not being who they say they are, not to mention a lot of resentment of wealth and privilege and all the trappings that come with it. And the way this story has unfolded, the fact that these families really seem to believe that the rules should not apply to them - that's been galling to many people.

And then look at the setting, right? So elite colleges are the source of such cultural fascination. Some would say obsession. Highly selective colleges - you know, they only enroll about 1 percent of all college students. So they're very, very small. But then again, they have these brands that are known all over the world. And they're supposed to stand for merit, for hard work, for the best and the brightest.

And so when you look at something like this or, even bigger, the legacy admissions or the fact that some wealthy donors can write a check and get their kid into college that way supposedly, it - all of this is really going to undermine the idea of having institutions in our society that represent hard work and being kind of excellent.

SHAPIRO: So where do these cases go from here?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, this is having a lot of different effects. So you know, some of the students have been expelled. Their admissions have been revoked. Some of the coaches have been fired. They face charges - athletic coaches who were involved in misrepresenting people as being recruits. And of course the legal cases are going to continue to unfold.

But I'm also interested in how it's unfolding in the broader culture at large. You know, whether you look at things like - we had a big debate last year about Harvard and affirmative action. And these conversations about things like legacy admissions are really bringing us to a broader conversation about, what do these elite colleges really offer? You know, the fact that they have nonprofit status - are they really serving the public, or are they just acting in a way that's really inflating their own bottom line and their own brands?

And so I think there's a broader conversation about, are there better ways to have admissions? And can we define excellence in education some other way other than, you know, something that's really expensive and only lets in about 5 percent of people who get to apply?

SHAPIRO: And for all that conversation, just in our last 30 seconds or so, do you see signs of systemic change coming?

KAMENETZ: I think that it's going to be a huge debate. I look forward to it in the presidential election, honestly.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thanks a lot.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY HYMAN'S "SLIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.