Editorial Writer

Meritocracy may be a myth, but that means someone is keeping the fiction alive. The multimillion-dollar college admissions scandal the Justice Department announced this week gives us a sense of who — and why.

Prosecutors alleged Tuesday that wealthy parents paid a high-powered consultant pretending to operate a charity for disadvantaged children to help their extraordinarily advantaged children get into top-tier schools including Yale, Stanford and UCLA, among others. Sometimes, that allegedly involved engineering elaborate schemes to cheat on college entrance exams. Other times, it was reportedly bribing coaches to say students were tennis stars when they barely knew their way around the baseline.

The plot has prompted a mix of outrage and cynicism. On the one hand, the level of deceit is appalling. On the other, parents pay for their children to attend elite educational institutions, albeit in ways that are legal, all the time — by making a major donation, say, or simply by hiring an SAT tutor. But it is in part because there are alternate routes the rich can take to the tip of the ivory tower that these parents’ alleged decision to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret is so perplexing.

Then there’s the strangeness of the logic behind paying for it at all: Children whose parents can throw around that sort of money as if it’s nothing are going to be okay. They can live off their family’s largesse without a bachelor’s degree, or at least without an Ivy League diploma, and they can capitalize on connections they already have from growing up alongside the powerful. So why college? And why these highly selective schools?

The answers go back to the myth of meritocracy and how these parents prop it up — even as they undermine meritocracy itself.

Why college? Many Americans fetishize the attendance of four-year institutions. Going to college, we think, is what smart and successful people do — especially people like the financiers who made up a sizable chunk of the now-indicted parents. Living a life of luxury looks a lot less questionable if there’s some indication you made it there on merit. A degree is society’s stamp of supposed deservingness.

Sure, there’s a more innocent explanation for our collective appreciation for college, too. College might not be what’s best for everyone, but it’s invaluable for many young people seeking to learn critical thinking and independence and to form friendships they’d have been unlikely to develop anywhere else.

But that’s where the second question comes in. The sorts of children whose parents reportedly sneaked them into Yale already went to private schools, or exemplary public ones. They could go to college somewhere, even if it didn’t show up on the first page of U.S. News and World Report rankings, without the “side door” the architect of the fraud reportedly promised.

So why these colleges? It’s because the societal stamp of deservingness from a place on page one is extra shiny.

Parents who care whether their children attend one of America’s “best” schools are buying into the idea of being the best. There are material advantages to attending one of these colleges, yes, from plush employment to social connections. But most of the children implicated in this scandal don’t need those advantages. They already have them. What a family gains from sending its scions to those schools is less concrete: the perception that the children are smart and successful, so that they can exist without shame in the high-achieving circles where they were reared — and the parents can, too.

Purchasing a mini-campus with your name on it doesn’t serve that purpose nearly so well, because the corruption is written right there on the portico. It has to look like the beneficiaries of academic cachet at least sort of earned it. Better still if the students, unaware of or unwilling to recognize the advantages they’ve received, believe they’ve earned it, too. Recommendation letters or phone calls from big-shot family friends, standard-size donations, SAT tutoring and more are the same game played on a smaller scale.

This is a tension strung so tight it should snap. Parents allegedly committed fraud to send their children to these schools because they believe those schools are superior. That image of superiority depends on the perception of the schools as places for smart and successful people to study. But by allegedly buying admission for students who are neither especially smart nor especially successful, these parents are guaranteeing that the Stanfords of the country aren’t actually only for smart and successful people, after all. They’re for people who can pay. Then, the schools churn out kids positioned to be rich — many of whom were rich to start with — and the cycle continues.

“The way the world works these days is unbelievable,” one parent, a senior executive at a private-equity firm who has advocated ethical investing, said as he arranged to trick admissions officials into thinking his son was a football kicker, according to court documents. But it’s people like that who keep it working that way.

Read more:

Gabrielle Bluestone: The college admissions scam is the perfect scandal in the golden age of grifters

Jeffrey Selingo: What the admissions scandal parents got wrong about college

Jennifer Rubin: Why the college scandal matters so much

Paul Waldman: The pathologies of the winner-take-all society