DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Trying to get into college is already difficult and unnerving for many students, but the massive college admissions scandal is prompting a crisis of faith about the fairness of the process. Max Larkin from member station WBUR has more.
MAX LARKIN, BYLINE: Sitting inside Harvard's gleaming new campus center, Jose Larios doesn't have many illusions about how the system works.
JOSE LARIOS: Wealth is extremely influential in college access. If you come from a well-off family in, say, Beverly Hills, odds are you've heard of college, the SAT, the ACT. Your child, from a very young age, has that as an expectation.
LARKIN: But famous families using bribes and fraud to get their kids in - that caught Larios by surprise. It felt like overkill.
LARIOS: So how someone could, like, already be extremely advantaged already and then decide, let me actually break the law, break the system more than already is, and commit fraud - that is shocking to me.
LARKIN: Walking across campus, Larios explains that he didn't have those same advantages growing up in Jamaica, Queens. He remembers telling his parents - who immigrated from Honduras - about his plan for the SAT.
LARIOS: I actually had to explain to them what I was actually doing with these, like, large volumes of books I would, like, borrow from the library.
LARKIN: Larios took the subway to free preparatory programs across New York City. They taught him some of the hard truths about higher education.
LARIOS: Student from, like, my background would have, like, a graduation rate of less than 10%.
LARKIN: Now in his junior year, Larios is beating those odds. And he gives a lot of credit to programs designed to expand college access for people like him. They don't just demystify financial aid or offer test prep. They give students from low-income backgrounds a place to strategize, celebrate and vent. And now they're coping with questions of fairness.
ZAIRA GARCIA: There's a lot of work that is put into going to college. To see that they just reap the benefits without putting in that work - I was like, wow, that's basically telling us to, like, screw off.
LARKIN: That's Zaira Garcia, a senior at East Boston High School. Most of that school's students come from low-income households. And less than half of its graduates were enrolled in college in the spring after graduation. Garcia works with the school's GEAR UP office - a state-run college prep program. She's an athlete, and she's in at Northeastern with a generous scholarship.
But her classmate, Naylene Rivera, wasn't so lucky. Rivera says she's a good student, also an athlete, and engaged in her school. But that left one big problem - SAT stress.
NAYLENE RIVERA: I was just, like, staring at my tests, thinking about how I'm not going to do well because I don't have enough time. I studied, but I'm forgetting everything in the moment. So I just think it's not fair.
LARKIN: For all the GEAR UP seniors at school that day, the memory of the SAT is tied up with panic and mostly disappointing results. And though a few say they know their lives won't be determined by test scores or college acceptances, they add that sometimes it can feel that way, especially coming from their background. It's a paradox for young adults at public city high schools. They may have more to gain than anyone from attending top-flight colleges, but those colleges still aren't set up to welcome them en masse.
Back at Harvard, Jose Larios understands how that school could change his own future.
LARIOS: I can absolutely see, like, why this is a springboard for someone, like, from a low-income background. There's professional experiences straight out of college where they pay you six-figure salaries.
LARKIN: But he says, for now, he has other plans. He wants to go into public policy to try to even the odds for students like him. For NPR News, I'm Max Larkin in Boston.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAN MOUNTAIN'S "ILLUMINATION RINGS")