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Nestor Ramos

Rigging an already-rigged system

Feds allege nationwide college admissions bribery, cheating plot.
Feds allege nationwide college admissions bribery, cheating plot.

It’s a very American tragedy: You’re rich enough to buy vacation homes and a fleet of luxury cars, but not quite rich enough to build a new campus library. So how is your slightly above average child supposed to get into a top college?

Well, when you can’t quite afford a perfectly legal bribe — say, a building with your name on it — try an illegal one.

That’s what 33 parents allegedly did, paying anywhere from $100,000 to $6.5 million to cheat on tests and falsify athletic success stories in an effort to fake their kids way into some of the nation’s top universities. The whole alleged racket functioned sort of like a diversity program for the mediocre children of people who spend a lot of time on luxury yachts, but don’t own one.

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The scope of the college admissions bribery scandal revealed in federal indictments here and around the country on Tuesday, complete with oddball details and a whiff of celebrity, was surprising.

The notion that the wealthy might find ways to leverage that wealth in order to further rig systems in their favor? That money might be able to tip the college admissions scales? That’s practically tradition; the only surprising thing is that it was actually illegal.

“They chose to corrupt and illegally manipulate the system,’’ US Attorney Andrew Lelling said at a news conference Tuesday. “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy.”

Sir, you may want to sit down . . . because I have some troubling news.

At America’s top and not-so-top colleges and universities, the admissions game is already rigged in favor of the wealthy. The result, as journalist Daniel Golden found in his 2006 book, “The Price of Admission,” is that there are already separate systems for the very rich and everyone else.

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Legacy admissions help children of privilege cut the line. Alumni (and non-alumni) donations grease the skids. Expensive private tutors inflate test scores. High-paid athletic coaches turn a JV scrub into a marginal recruit.

The indictments made public Tuesday allege that these parents cut even those fast-pass lines, paying sharper kids to take SAT and ACT tests in their place, Photoshopping their heads onto the bodies of actual soccer players and bribing coaches to claim them as recruits.

Imagine needing to cheat the system that’s already been rigged in your favor, and not stopping for a moment to consider going to (*audible gasp*) Midwestern Directional State University instead.

William “Rick” Singer departed Federal Court in Boston on Tuesday.
William “Rick” Singer departed Federal Court in Boston on Tuesday. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

But this isn’t about education, it’s about cachet. And all the concrete avenues by which the rich can buy themselves into high class networks (to which they already belong anyway) are nothing compared to the less visible but much larger obstacles faced by anyone with the misfortune to be born into poverty: Underfunded and overburdened schools, instability at home that is often more than financial, neighborhood violence and its associated gurgling daily trauma.

Some progressive colleges have instituted need-blind policies, ensuring that a student’s inability to pay staggering tuition costs are not taken into account during admission decisions. It’s a good first step.

But for so many students on lower socioeconomic rungs, the “need” was vast long before any bill for room and board might come due. They need safe and well-funded public schools; enrichment programs and supplies; affordable child care so their parents can earn a living without breaking their backs and their spirits.

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That’s all been subject to a different kind of need-blindness — one that extends far beyond colleges — for a very long time.


Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.