U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling announces indictments in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal, in a news conference on Tuesday in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP)
Columnist

Let us have a moment of silence for all the affluent parents who have spent the past decade or so frantically preparing their kids for college admissions. They vastly overpaid for homes near excellent public schools — or perhaps forked over the annual price of a new car to private ones — paid for extracurriculars, tutors, college-essay coaches . . . but as we now realize, they could have saved some money and a lot of effort if they had just paid a sleazy consultant to fake a record of achievement, rather than going to all the trouble of pushing their kids into actually acquiring one.

On Tuesday, dozens of people were indicted, all of them wealthy and several modestly famous, for fraudulently conspiring to gain their children (or their clients’ children) undeserved admissions to elite schools. Through the offices of the Key Worldwide Foundation, whose boss, William “Rick” Singer, was arrested, these parents engaged in a staggering fraud — fabricating athletic prizes, faking learning disabilities and altering standardized tests, even going so far as to photoshop a child’s head onto the body of a star football kicker.

I confess my first reaction was to ask — as the parents probably asked themselves — just how different this was from what other parents do. Anyone who went to an Ivy League school is familiar with the “development admits,” underachieving kids whose arrival on campus is accompanied by a plaque on a building or a laboratory bearing their surname. Legacies get less of a boost but are more numerous, and their admission is at least partly facilitated with an eye to future donations. Meanwhile, at less exclusive institutions, the ability to pay full tuition plays an unmistakable role in deciding who gets the nod.

Then there are the more pedestrian expenditures of time and money on good school districts and every ancillary service that might improve little Emma or Ethan’s shot at the Ivy League. Given the demographics of elite colleges, students who are looking around today and wondering who might have bought their way in might better ask themselves, “Who didn’t?”

Of course, it has always been thus. College has always best served the best off among us; the meritocratic veneer we retrofitted onto the system in the middle of the 20th century did more to disguise the underlying reality than to alter it.

It is true that the discipline of college admissions makes those children work harder in high school than they once did. Elite childhoods, previously centered around acquiring social graces and a solid backhand from the baseline, are now more like management training programs — scheduled, supervised and endured mostly with an eye to promotion. But in a way, that’s a much bigger problem than the theft of a few dozen admissions slots at a handful of schools.

All that work obscures the reality of a self-perpetuating elite that hoards all the best prizes for the victors of a game, ostensibly fair and open to all, which no one else ever seems to win. The affluent young people who secure those admissions slots often work very hard, which makes those prizes feel wholly earned. Yet most Ivy League students are still in one sense quite similar to that child whose face was photoshopped onto the body of an actual athlete — they would never have gotten onto the field without extensive parental exercises in image management.

That feeling of just reward has allowed us to ignore a disturbing reality: The closing of most secure and well-paid employment to all but the college-educated means selective colleges are now far more effective gatekeepers of elites than they were in the days when a certain class of father rushed out of the hospital to put his newborn son’s name down for Groton and Harvard. Oh, the college elites are quick to bemoan declining intergenerational mobility; they readily rue the skewed family income distribution of college students. But tut-tut as they may, no affluent parent is going to stop working to give her own child every advantage in the admissions lottery — or question the social consensus that reserves all the best jobs for college graduates.

The Herculean parental labors expended to secure a child’s place in the hereditary meritocracy probably explain why this scandal may blow over quickly, even if it dominated the news for a couple of days. Legally, this fraud was perpetuated on the schools, but when it comes down to it, what are the schools complaining about? That the checks these parents wrote were too small and made out to the wrong party?

The people who feel really violated are the well-heeled parents who did the work, who played the game by the rules they were given. And though they may have known at some level that the game was rigged in their favor, that doesn’t mean they’re happy to find their rock-solid fix bypassed by parents running a different, and altogether more brazen, con.

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