Rachelle Cliche of Portland has no sympathy for the parents accused by federal officials this week of bribing and faking their kids’ way into elite colleges. In fact, she’s extremely angry.

“Screw these people and their disregard for what is right and fair,” Cliche, 43, wrote on Facebook. “I have a kid whose GPA is off the charts, has volunteered countless hours, taken tests over and over to improve scores, joined every club, played sports and been a leader in her class and she is still fighting to get into the schools she wants and is qualified for.”

Anger, disgust, surprise and sadness were among the emotions expressed by Maine parents, high school seniors and educators as news of the college admissions corruption scandal spread Wednesday. The U.S. Justice Department charged 50 people – including TV stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin – on Tuesday with participating in a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme that enabled students from wealthy families with poor grades to attend elite colleges and universities.

Allegations include cheating on entrance exams and bribing university officials to say students were being recruited as athletes when they weren’t. Some parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars – and as much as $6.5 million – to get their children admitted to top schools.

The schools targeted in the investigation include some of the nation’s most prestigious – Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and UCLA. While no Maine colleges were named, many parents and students here took the news personally, since so many know firsthand how hard most students work to get into good schools and how much money it costs.

Falmouth High School senior Katie Han has been accepted at Stanford University, where she plans to study psychology. The admissions scandal “really angered” her. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“It really angered me, but sadly I wasn’t surprised,” said Katie Han, 17, a Falmouth High School senior who was accepted early to Stanford and plans to study psychology. “I think the college process is already unequal and skewed to the wealthy.”

Han said there are already many ways people get a leg up on the college process for their children, including paying for test prep classes, private tutoring and essay-writing help. So she wasn’t that surprised that there are unscrupulous people willing to “take that another step further.”

Han said she and her family did not pay for extra help, at least partly because she felt like she already had an advantage because “of living in a town like Falmouth, with such a good education system.”

‘DOING THIS FOR YEARS’

While the scope of the scandal, and the fact that it ensnared celebrities, surprised some people, the idea of wealthy people paying for an advantage did not.

“The super wealthy have been doing this for years – they just make a donation, buy a wing, and their child gets in,” said John Suttie, principal at Old Orchard Beach High School and superintendent of the Old Orchard Beach school district. “The true tragedy of all this is that for every person of wealth who bought their child’s way in, someone who was qualified and should have gotten in was left out.”

Cliche’s anger over the scandal stems from watching how hard her daughter, Dela Bernard, has worked in high school. Dela, a 17-year-old senior at Deering High School who ranks fourth in her class, serves as class president, has played sports and participates in drama. Of the 11 colleges to which she’s applied, Dela has already gotten into two, the University of Maine and Emmanuel College in Boston, and is waiting to hear from others, including Yale, Brown, Bates, Wesleyan and Smith.

“She has all the bells and whistles on her applications, which other parents are apparently paying to have checked off,” Cliche said.

Stacey Kelley of Scarborough, whose twin daughters are headed to Roanoke College in Virginia next fall, said the scandal has shined a spotlight on poor parenting as well as the unfairness of the system. To help make the college search process smoother, Kelley hired a local college admissions consultant – at a cost of $3,200 total – to help her daughters find the right academic and financial fit.

“I feel so bad for the kids who have worked hard and sacrificed to get into those coveted colleges,” said Kelley, 47, a nurse practitioner. “And what are we teaching our kids, when parents do something like that?”

‘IT IS IMMENSELY FRUSTRATING’

As someone who has gone through the application process and was accepted to a respected college, Bates College freshman Nolan Potter of Wells said he’s disgusted by the cheating scandal. An all-state pick in football and wrestling at Wells High, Potter is a member of the Bates football team.

“I mean, that sucks, to be totally honest,” Potter said. “I and other student-athletes have worked so hard to get where we are now and to go to a good school. And to find out that either coaches are taking money, or parents are paying for someone to cheat, that’s frankly unfair.”

Kennebunk High’s athletic director, Joe Schwartzman, said he finds the scandal deeply troubling. Schwartzman has written dozens of college recommendations for student-athletes and talks to them about what it takes to get into college. He also has three daughters, the older two currently playing college sports.

“All we do is preach to all of our kids, work hard, do as much as you can, get involved in clubs, and it will pay off in the long run,” Schwartzman said, “and, unfortunately, it may not, because other people paid off (someone) so you didn’t get in.”

Calvin Spencer, 17, a senior at Falmouth High, said he was not surprised by the scandal.

“My first reaction was, ‘of course,’ it seemed like something that must have been going to some extent,” said Spencer, who will attend Davidson College in North Carolina in the fall. “But it is immensely frustrating to know this is happening.”

‘IT’S ABOUT THE MONEY’

To help get into the school he wanted, he worked hard for four years and packed his resume with extracurriculars and advanced placement courses, and competed in the state science fair several times.

Aaron Matthews, a senior at South Portland High School, said he has always taken to heart the idea that all he could do was to try his best. He’s tried not to worry about the super-competitive nature of college admissions. Matthews, 17, has been class president for four years, worked on the school’s sustainability committee, and has taken AP tests for college credit. He has been accepted to Belmont University in Nashville, where he plans to study music management.

“I think of all the kids who really try and work hard for their scores,” Matthews said. “I had no idea it would be so easy for scores to be falsified.”

His father, Dick Matthews, chairman of the South Portland school committee, said the idea that money can buy admission to a school is disturbing.

“These kids in places like South Portland are fighting, working part-time jobs, being in the musicals, in the band, playing a sport, doing all their homework and writing essay after essay to try to get scholarships,” said Matthews, 52. “But you see a scandal like this, and it’s not about the kids. It’s about the money.”

Correction: This story was updated at 9:22 a.m. on March 14, 2019 to correct the cost of hiring a college admissions consultant by a Scarborough parent.

Staff Writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: RayRouthier


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