Fifty individuals were charged on Tuesday in a college admissions bribery scandal that U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling called the largest such case the Department of Justice has ever seen. Those indicted in the crimes include actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman and sports coaches from seven elite American universities.
U.S. investigators say that Olivia Jade Giannulli was accepted to the University of Southern California (USC) only after her parents, Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, paid a total of $250,000 to a phony nonprofit organization, the Key Worldwide Foundation, and an associate athletic director at USC. The Giannullis had allegedly done the same for their older daughter, Isabella, pretending that the girls were recruits for the school’s crew team.
Though Loughlin’s second daughter did not participate in crew, investigators say, she did have something special on her resume. She has nearly 2 million subscribers on her YouTube channel, Olivia Jade.
Giannulli’s videos focus on beauty, fashion, fitness and vlogs of her college experiences at USC. In one recent deal with The RealReal, Giannulli was paid to use the brand’s products in a YouTube video. Giannulli did not return a request for comment and The RealReal declined to comment for this story.
Giannulli is one of many social media influencers who attract hundreds of thousands of viewers during their years in college. One YouTuber, Katy Bellotte, who runs the channel HelloKaty, started her account in 2009 and entered Elon University as a freshman in 2014. Bellotte’s channel has nearly 500,000 subscribers. Jaclyn Brooke is a freshman in college with more than 175,000 subscribers. Brooke did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
So, when Giannulli entered USC last fall, could she have gotten in on her social media fame alone?
Probably not, the experts say.
Though the social media craze may be wildly changing the landscape of entertainment and advertising, universities aren’t necessarily on board with the change, says Vitaly Borishan, co-founder of Solomon Admissions Consulting, a college admissions counseling firm based in New York. While some schools do value having famous actors or performers in their classes, this does not yet apply to social media influencers, according to Borishan.
Adding ‘social media influencer’ to your college application will not give you the same boost on your application as volunteering or playing an instrument can, Borishan says. “Universities are not there yet in terms of valuing social media influencers as real celebrities,” he tells TIME.
Because many students on YouTube and other social media platforms to show unsavory things like drinking and partying, Borishan says including your social media handles could actually harm your application. “That doesn’t really offer any interesting information that would suggest to the university that the student would do well, in their studies or after,” Borishan says. “That’s really what universities are looking for.”
One day, things could change, Borishan says, if admissions officers start to consider social media as an important factor. “I think eventually, we might see that,” he says.
Elon University is one institution that does not take social media accounts into consideration when looking over applications, Greg Zaiser, the vice president for enrollment at the university, tells TIME. “It’s relatively infrequent” that a student will include their social media presence as a factor on their resume, Zaiser said in an email.
USC could not immediately be reached for comment.
Stefanie Niles, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and the vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University, says that in some cases, a large social media following can help an application — but it’s not the following that’s impressive to admissions officers. “It’s what did they do to generate the following,” Niles tells TIME. If what they’ve done seems impressive, then that’s definitely a leg up for an applicant. “Every college is looking for students who contribute to their community,” Niles says. “You need students who are going to impact the campus in different ways, and you look for students with distinctive qualities, talents and commitments.”
One such commitment, Niles says, can be running a social media account. While grades, test scores and extracurriculars play the most important roles, being an influencer “could be of interest as part of the overall application,” according to Niles.
Bellotte, who is now a graduate of Elon’s communication design program, says that her work on YouTube did play an important role in her college application process because it became an integral part of her creative portfolio. Bellotte also regarded her blog as a factor in college admission. “I think my blogging work really did equate to a sort of ‘extracurricular’ for college admissions,” she tells TIME.
But, Bellotte says, “times have certainly changed” — when she applied to college, the term “influencer” didn’t exist.
For Niles, this kind of work can definitely show something unique to counselors. If a student shows commitment with “sustained focus,” Niles says that definitely would show admissions officers their work ethic.
Giannulli has said on her YouTube channel that she didn’t want to go to college in the first place, and was mostly at USC for the parties. After backlash, the YouTuber apologized in a separate video. “I’m sorry for anyone I offended by saying that,” she said.
Giannulli is not the only influencer among the students involved in their parents indictments. The daughter of Jane Buckingham, charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, has more than 50,000 subscribers. According to case filings, Buckingham wanted her daughter, Lilia, to have someone else take a college entry exam on her behalf. She had allegedly already paid $50,000 to do the same for her son.
Buckingham, indicted in the Central District of California, is the founder and CEO of a marketing firm called Trendera, which focuses in “trend forecasting, brand strategy & generational research,” its website says. Representatives for both Trendera and the Buckinghams did not immediately return requests for comment.
But whether you’re famous on social media or not, it’s no secret that unsavory details on social media accounts can harm students in the application process, Borishan warns. “Try to put all of your social media on private, because you never know what people are going to find on there that might hurt you.”
One example that could seem innocuous is posting about luxurious vacations or traveling — social media influencers often travel internationally, as vacations or to promote brands they work with. (Giannulli missed the start of her freshman year because she was on a trip in Fiji.) Borishan says this could be more harmful on applications than students think. “In general, showcasing your privilege is never a good idea. It’s in bad tone,” he says. “People should showcase things that make them stand out in a good way.”
“At the end of the day, these college admissions officers are trying to build a diverse class.”