The concept of parody can be understood most simply as the comic art of taking something familiar to such excess that it becomes farce.

In that sense, this week’s college admissions fraud scandal, which has ensnared dozens of wealthy and famous Americans, is an act of pure, if unintentional, parody. Because while the process was exaggerated to a comical extent, the reality is that when it comes to admissions to elite schools, money can all but guarantee access to those who can afford it.

“The bribing of coaches by wealthy individuals is really just a more blatant example of what goes on all the time,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive thinktank.

And while most wealthy Americans don’t pay fake charities for Photoshopped images of their children playing sports they have never tried, or bribe athletic coaches, as the dozens caught in the “Varsity Blues” investigation are accused of doing, legal pay for play in admissions is as routine as it is unfair, said Kahlenberg, who has spent years studying the issue of unequal opportunity in education.


“How do you treat this situation where some people can afford to have private tutors to prepare for standardized tests, private tutors to get people’s grades up, or they can afford to take a test three or four times and they can afford $5,000 to $10,000 prep courses?” said Richard Lempert, a professor of law and sociology emeritus at the University of Michigan. “It’s not corrupt – but it means that the ones who have the most position themselves to get even more.”

Lempert and Kahlenberg have both devoted large chunks of their careers to studying affirmative action and both expressed hope that the scandal and ensuing focus on the admissions process might spark a movement towards systemwide reforms.

“If you were fair, you would try to construct an admission system which recognized that certain kids had enormous advantages,” Kahlenberg. “Therefore, we should consider their academic record, their extracurriculars, even the strength of their teacher recommendations – in the context of disadvantage.”