The agony and ecstasy of singing for your supper

July 29, 2005

A US reality TV show gave cash-strapped contestants the chance to win an Ivy League scholarship but was dignity lost in the process? Stephen Phillips investigates

Garfield and Lincoln," replies Davis, the brash, cocky sixthformer from Memphis confident that he knows which two US presidents were assassinated in the 19th century.

"Is that your final answer?" presses host Rob Nelson. The tension in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library rises as the ten hopefuls vying for an all expenses-paid scholarship to the "college of their dreams" nervously await their fate on primetime TV.

A reality show about college admissions and student funding sounds unlikely, but Jaye Pace, co-creator of The Scholar , originally envisaged a musical -"college admissions is such a song and dance", she says.

In the end, former university admissions officers Pace and Shannon Meairs, and Liz Williams, a Broadway theatre producer, created something of a soap opera. They envisaged pitting ten brainy but not wealthy school-leavers against each other in a series of academic challenges and character tests.

The proceedings would be presided over by real-life admissions officers, who would size up the contenders as they would candidates for their respective institutions.

The premise is simple - it is one thing to win a place at your top-choice campus, quite another to have the means to study there. For the ten contestants, the $240,000 (£138,000) "full-ride" scholarship top prize represents their ticket.

Returning to the action in the penultimate episode, Davis has aced an earlier quiz on the US Constitution and has eloquently put the case for legalising gay marriage in a politically charged debate, keeping his composure while others wilt under the steely gaze of the admissions panel.

Entering the sudden-death showdown on US presidents - an office he aspires to -he exudes preppy confidence. "I should nail it," he declares, as the contestants anxiously cram.

But Davis has misheard the question: he was asked for the presidents assassinated in the 20th century. Winded by the revelation of his fatal error, he slumps at his podium, clutching his temple.

The $50,000 scholarship up for grabs at the end of each show and a place in the final with a shot at winning the full-ride scholarship goes to Amari from Missouri.

"I've seen my dog get run over - nothing shocks me - but that was intense," Davis recalls. He is speaking from the California beach house where last week cast members gathered with Pace to watch the broadcast of the final episode.

One person's agony, another's ecstasy - the grist of reality TV. But applied to college access? Some US observers are aghast. "It's exploitative," says Barmak Nassirian, spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "The process by which people choose what college to attend should not be subject to this sensationalism."

Pace says she wanted to create a show "that would be entertaining but also demystify the college admissions process... pulling the curtain back to show what admissions staff are really looking for". The series adheres to a familiar reality-TV formula. The "scholars" live in funky dorm-style digs with prying cameras rolling to capture confessions or snide comments about rivals. But there's a higher education twist. Events unfold on the University of Southern California's (USC) campus in Los Angeles (apart from outings to the Reagan library and other suitably weighty destinations); Rob Nelson isn't just another host, but a graduate of Stanford University Law School to which he won a scholarship; and the elite admissions staff are from Columbia and the University of California, Berkeley.

The producers were looking for intelligence and TV presence in their selection of ten scholars from nearly 4,000 applicants, Pace says.

"Students had to have academic credentials and demonstrate leadership, passion... and financial need," she says.

But she adds: "We were also looking for personalities that 'popped', who looked good on camera."

The show's website proclaims a heady brew of characters, including: Amari, "raised by a single mum", with an "infectious good nature" that "belies her unrelenting work ethic"; Davis, "the self-proclaimed future president of the United States"; Elizabeth, "a small-town girl hungry for life in the big city"; Max, who is "most proud of his academic achievements" but "not shy about his ability to charm the girls" and budding stem-cell researcher Milana, whose ambition is to "find a cure for cancer".

But the show shuns the shock-factor format of other reality shows, and the producers strenuously deny trafficking in salacious entertainment on the back of cash-strapped students' desperation to reach their dream college.

Everyone emerged with their dignity intact, says co-producer Joan Stein.

"The most important thing we were putting across was that a first-class education is available to any student who wants it," she adds.

Such rationale convinced USC to put itself up as host despite having initial misgivings, says senior filming co-ordinator Elijah May.

The university, which is near Hollywood, is the world's most-filmed campus - The Graduate was shot there - and May is one half of a two-person team retained exclusively to co-ordinate film projects. Between scenes on the slickly produced show, the camera pans across USC's sun-drenched grounds, cutting to the gleaming Los Angeles skyline in the distance. It's been a "great showcase" for the university, May says.

But Nassirian doesn't accept assertions that The Scholar has performed a public service. "The notion that access to college must be a zero-sum game in which x number of people need to be beaten is a little offensive."

Stein counters that even the losers pocketed $20,000 towards their college expenses. That is hardly spreading the wealth, Nassirian says. "It doesn't make a dent in real needs. It's about making money for a broadcasting company, using do-good-ism as a vehicle."

The show's corporate sponsorship has also raised hackles. Computer chip maker Intel, which supplied free laptops, and retail behemoth Wal-Mart, which underwrote the $50,000 and $20,000 scholarships, are generously name-checked. Commercial breaks during the show feature warm and fuzzy ads plugging their altruism. Such deals are a funding reality in commercial television, Stein says. The top prize was donated by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.

Nassirian also worries that the show has fanned middle-class anxiety about fees. Colleges typically provide assistance to deserving cases, he says, without students "needing to put themselves on this kind of display".

But middle-class students are finding themselves increasingly priced out of many elite colleges. They do not qualify for means-tested grants and lack the parental income to afford exorbitant fees. So, many are forced to be enterprising, Davis says. "It's the middle-class syndrome. If your parents make $90,000 to $150,000 a year, you're out of luck," he adds.

By their own admission, Davis and fellow scholars Elizabeth, Milana and Max are middle class, comfortably so in some cases. None of them is going to be packing shelves at the local supermarket because they missed out on the top scholarship. The winner of the grand prize, Melissa, "a remarkable teen" who bounced back from "an intense surgical procedure", is going to Pomona College. And despite failing to land the full scholarship on the show, Elizabeth, Milana and Max have lined up various funding sources and are bound for Yale, Princeton and Columbia respectively; Davis will attend USC.

This and other issues are being debated on the internet message boards devoted to The Scholar . "Will this show reflect another example of the cracks in our flawed education system?" muses one entry, though another exclaims: "Wow you guys take this seriously... Take a deep breath, it's a TV show!"

As such, one US critic criticised The Scholar for committing perhaps the ultimate reality show sin: being boring.

He has a point. The scholars are a remarkably poised bunch. But the group hugs, Oscars-style speeches and emotional histrionics of the finale make for less than compelling viewing. The most interesting moments are the sharp exchanges between the admissions officers, clashing over the merits of weighing the whole student - extracurricular achievements and all - versus concentrating on their academic marks.

There is also something deeply uncomfortable about watching the students sing for their supper when asked to say why they deserve the top scholarship. Perhaps, ultimately, the process of awarding scholarships is not unlike the making of law and sausages - something one's better off not witnessing.

Fortunately, Americans craving slightly racier fare in their collegiate reality TV have only a few weeks to wait for the debut of Tommy Lee Goes to College . Cameras will follow the notorious "himbo", on-off Pamela Anderson beau and prodigiously tattooed drummer from the 1980s glam-metal band Mötley Crüe as he spends a semester at the University of Nebraska.

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