Luke MacGregor / Reuters

For the second time in just a few months, admissions at America’s elite colleges are under a microscope. In late 2018, the scrutiny was on T. M. Landry, a predominantly black private school in Louisiana that had garnered a national reputation for sending dozens of graduates to the Ivy League and other prestigious institutions. A New York Times report revealed the school as a fraud, faking transcripts and hiding allegations of abuse. The Landry scandal caused tremors in higher education, but damage was limited by the fact that colleges could plausibly claim victimhood—although, I argued at the time, it was difficult not to come away from the debacle with a sense that it called into question core tenets of the American educational meritocracy.

As explosive as the Landry affair was, it is now dwarfed by the bombshell dropped by the Justice Department on Tuesday, when federal lawyers indicted 50 people on racketeering charges for allegedly facilitating or taking part in a nationwide fraud to game admissions at top colleges. The accused include CEOs, wealthy investors, and at least two celebrities. According to the indictment, the conspiracy had been refined over many iterations, and was marketed as a service to the ultra-wealthy. Its creator described it as an innovation, a cost-effective “side door” into top colleges. In practice, it was a system of bribes to accomplices such as testing-center officials, who could help alter SAT and ACT scores, and college coaches in second-tier sports, who could help admit applicants who pretended to be athletes.

The story immediately went into the stratosphere. No one could resist the specter of the rich and famous engaging in lurid criminality to give their kids even more of an advantage. All the major news outlets led with the scandal. Twitter, the hub of the media elite, had a ball, alternating between mockery and fury. A tidal wave of scorn washed over the whole of American discourse. Ask Tom Brady, Lance Armstrong, or Goldman Sachs: The only thing people dislike more than cheaters winning is winners cheating.

Resenting the dynastically wealthy is practically a national sport, and for the most part, that’s what the admissions scandal has been understood to be about: the perfidy of the 1 percent. Many drew parallels to entirely legal ways the rich can rig college admissions, like pledging donations or enrolling in private prep schools. Implicit in the public contempt is the belief that none of this has anything to do with regular middle-class folk. In fact, some of the angriest responses came from people who attended the very colleges that had been part of the scam. For many, the scandal felt like a sign of the times, showing the divide between the rich, cheating their way to the top, and everyone else, who had climbed up the hard way.

Maybe that’s why an odd twist in Tuesday’s scandal stood out: Many of the students who benefited did not know about the fraud being committed for them. In several instances, their parents endeavored to keep the payoffs and cheating secret, arranging false tests so the children would never know that their scores had been deceitfully obtained. The kids were fakes, and ignorant of that fact.

It’s hard to blame people for mocking these oblivious teenagers, who thought they were walking on their own, but were in fact being carried. But it’s also worth considering how events would have appeared from their perspective. A high ACT score would have seemed like just another stroke of good fortune in a life full of it. The same goes for their acceptance into a selective college. In one tragicomic passage in the indictment, the scheme’s orchestrator describes how his student “clients” would sometimes come to him, surprised by their own high test scores, and suggest that maybe they’d do even better if they took the test again. They mistook the secret forces working on their behalf for their own natural talent. If you can’t see the hidden hand behind your success, what other explanations are there besides luck and ability?

In other words, from the students’ viewpoint, this is about as archetypal an instance of privilege as could be imagined. Advantage, after all, is rarely noticed by the advantaged. People don’t have an easy way to compare their lives with those of others, to see how the same situations might turn out differently if they themselves came from a different background. The first instinct is often to attribute disproportionate success to above-average aptitude, but most successful people know aptitude can’t explain everything that’s gone their way. That’s why, in many cases, privilege looks and feels like an accumulation of good luck, a series of little victories that make everything work okay in the end. In reality, luck and aptitude don’t tell the full story. Instead, wealth or caste or social standing work to load the dice in favor of the fortunate.

Now a confession: I too attended one of the colleges named in Tuesday's indictment. The news set me to wondering, Did I know someone who had bought his or her way into college? How could I tell? For that matter, how would I have known if secret forces had worked on my behalf?

At first, the question seemed ridiculous. I did not grow up fabulously wealthy, and I’m reasonably certain that my parents paid no bribes for me. I can say with total confidence that no one was seeking my athletic prowess, real or imagined.

Then I remembered that my father had also attended my alma mater. I hadn’t thought about that too much when I’d applied, believing that my grades spoke for themselves. No one ever brought it up to me, and I hadn’t really dwelled on it since. It was definitely not a fact that I had ever used to discount my own academic achievements.

But I’m nearly certain that somewhere in the application process, some admissions official, whose face I’d never see, took note that I was a legacy applicant, and moved me up a few spots on the list. Here was something I’d overlooked, a hidden hand behind my own good fortune, silently working to transmit my parents’ economic and social station downward to me. Perhaps less was separating me from the admissions-scandal students than I’d thought.

In this, I’m not alone. How many people who attended a good college, or secured a prestigious job, or otherwise climb one rung after another up the ladder of social and professional standing, can look back and see nothing similar?

While some people do start in remarkably disadvantaged places and rise through society, social mobility is the exception, not the rule. It’s true that most successful peoples’ parents have never paid an illegal fixer to secure them a college seat. But consider: If you attended a high-performing public high school, your parents probably did pay a premium on their house to live in the attendance zone. And what about the countless other, smaller outlays parents can make to help propel their children upward, things like test prep, sports equipment, after-school activities, travel? Even basic necessities like healthy food, medical care, or personal safety come at a financial cost. None of these expenditures are solely the province of the very wealthy, but nor are they guaranteed, and each serves as a little investment in the future, giving children a small leg up on peers who do not receive the same.

Parental wealth is hardly the only form of unearned advantage. Other privileges are even more deeply embedded, transmitted almost as birthright. In America, whiteness ranks highest among these. In education, in the workplace, in the criminal-justice system, white children and teenagers consistently receive hidden benefits that their nonwhite peers do not. How many white teenagers have gotten caught smoking weed or drinking, and were let off with a laugh and a warning? For a child of color—particularly a black child—the exact same episode is more likely to end with an arrest, and a ruined future. Where one person has a good chance of going home feeling lucky, another might leave in a squad car. How many white kids found it easy to get a summer job, while black children with the same applications were turned away? How many white students have been steered toward advanced-level courses, while their black peers were not? These advantages often persist across the income spectrum. For example, even after controlling for socioeconomic status, white students are significantly more likely to be assigned to a gifted-and-talented program than black students.

Legally speaking, none of these things remotely resemble paying off a test administrator. Pragmatically speaking, and from the perspective of the person who benefits? There is a certain symmetry. You have parents spending money to put their children in the place that best guarantees their success. You have many of those children growing up at least partially ignorant of the efforts expended to help them, and the forces working to protect them. Certainly, in both cases, the people who benefit are likely to end up thinking they’ve mostly earned what they’ve received, as a reward for hard work and natural aptitude. And if they got a lucky break or two along the way, well, that’s just life.

The lesson here isn’t to forgive the alleged fraudsters. Rather, it is that in a society stratified from top to bottom by race and wealth, privilege can’t be understood as something held exclusively by the richest 1 percent, or even the richest 10 percent, to the detriment of all others. If they’re propelled to their station by forces out of their sight and beyond their control, so too is everyone else lifted or confined by those same forces. Because of that, there is often no indicting the meritocracy without indicting oneself. One might even begin to wonder whether the real fraud is the idea of merit in the first place—that maybe “deservingness” is a shoddy basis for organizing a society altogether.

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