Standardized test scores are manufactured. Transcripts are made up. High-stakes admissions decisions are issued based on fabricated extracurricular activities, ghostwritten personal essays and the size of the check written by the parents of the applicant.
American universities are often cast as the envy of the world, august institutions that select the best and the brightest young people after an objective and rigorous selection process.
But the bribery scandal unveiled by the Justice Department this week — and a number of other high-profile cases that have captured the headlines in recent months — has shown the admissions system to be something else entirely: exploitable, arbitrary, broken.
At the heart of the scandal is a persistent adulation of highly selective universities. “Elite colleges have become a status symbol with the legitimacy of meritocracy attached to them, because getting in sanctifies you as meritorious,” said Jerome Karabel, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a historian of college admissions.
The case, in which dozens of parents are accused of buying spots at elite universities for their teenagers, comes amid already heightened scrutiny of college admissions.
Last summer, a trove of secret files in a lawsuit against Harvard was made public, outlining special admissions preferences and back doors for certain applicants.
Then the news broke last fall that a Louisiana preparatory school had fabricated stories based on racial stereotypes to get its students into selective colleges.
The federal complaint released this week says that the organizers of the bribery scheme identified and abused weak spots in the admissions process: special accommodations in standardized testing and a system of reserving slots for students favored by athletic coaches. The parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to get higher test scores for their children and to have them fraudulently recruited for boutique sports.
The charges against the parents, who include Hollywood actresses and powerful executives, have exposed how thin the line is between admissions help that most middle-class families consider not just legitimate but de rigueur, like sending a child to a Kaplan class for SAT help, and outright fraud, like paying a ringer to take the test for the student.
In the days since the scandal broke, college consultants and admissions directors have found themselves in an awkward, sometimes defensive position. They have expressed shock at how the system was manipulated, while being acutely aware that they, as part of the system, may bear some responsibility for an admissions process that has spun out of control.
“It isn’t exactly broken, it’s breachable,” said Theodore O’Neill, who was dean of admissions at the University of Chicago from 1989 to 2009. (The University of Chicago has not been implicated in the scandal.)
Parents accused in the scandal took advantage of extra-time allowances on the ACT or SAT exams, court documents said, and bribed test administrators to allow someone else to take the tests or to correct students’ answers.
Cheating on standardized tests has long been seen as an admissions vulnerability. In 2011, prosecutors on Long Island accused students of hiring others to take standardized tests for them. Testing officials have also reported troubles in Asia, where SAT and ACT scores have been delayed and, in some instances, canceled because of allegations of widespread cheating.
The tests, which also routinely face attacks that they heavily favor affluent students who can afford coaching, are becoming optional at a growing number of selective schools.
Colleges say they use a “holistic” admissions system — weighing factors like hardships and service to the community — in part to account for the edge given to those who can attend better schools or pay for test coaching.
But reports of fraud at the T.M. Landry College Preparatory School in Breaux Bridge, La., in November have shown those measures to be vulnerable, too. A New York Times investigation found that administrators at the school had falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and exploited the worst stereotypes of black America to concoct stories that could be fed to selective schools.
Some of the revelations this week were reminiscent of the secrets of admission revealed at the trial last October, in which Asian-American students rejected by Harvard accused the university of downgrading their applications based on subjective measures. Documents in the case shed light on, among other things, the little-known Dean’s and Director’s Interest Lists, closely guarded lists of applicants connected to top donors or other people of interest to the university, and the Z List, a back door for students who were borderline academically.
In essence, the wealthy parents accused in the federal complaint took similar ways in. William Singer, the college consultant accused of being at the center of the bribery scheme, even called his services a “side door,” according to court papers. Compared with the more traditional route of, say, endowing a building, which could cost millions, the door Mr. Singer offered cost only hundreds of thousands of dollars, a relative bargain.
Other documents in the Harvard lawsuit showed the strong advantage that universities give to recruited athletes; at Harvard, their admission rate in recent years was 86 percent.
This week, the bribery investigation illustrated how even those preferences can be gamed.
Prosecutors said that parents funneled millions of dollars through Mr. Singer, sometimes through a charity front, to coaches, administrators and sports programs so they would designate their children as recruited athletes in boutique sports like water polo and sailing. Often the children had no experience playing on a competitive sports team, and were not expected to play once they got in.
The scandal has raised questions about whether such athletic preferences are fair — or even necessary.
“Ivy League and sports, to me that’s an oxymoron,” said Christopher Hunt, a college admissions consultant.
Mr. O’Neill said that while an argument might be made for recruiting preferences in major sports like football, it was harder to justify for less popular programs.
“It seems ludicrous that basically upper-middle-class white kids are given advantages because of their capacity to play minor sports that are meaningless to most people,” he said.
But other experts said that eliminating those preferences would be counterproductive.
“If you’re going to have an athletics program, then you need to recruit athletes,” said E. Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University. “If you’re going to have an orchestra, you need to have orchestra players.”
The investigation may spur more schools to reconsider other admission preferences, such as those for legacy students, or the children of alumni. Universities say those preferences encourage community and fund-raising, but impassioned criticism has mounted in the wake of the Harvard lawsuit, and recent news about the influence of wealth on college admissions is likely to keep that fire burning.
According to court documents, the admission rate for legacies at Harvard was 33.6 percent. The rate for the Class of 2022 as a whole was under 5 percent.
“It’s like going to the movies — you need a ticket,” said Mimi Doe, a founder of Top Tier Admissions, a college counseling service. “Your scores and grades get you in the door. But guess what? Half the seats are roped off with a big red cord.”
Mr. Karabel, the sociologist, said that the bribery crisis simply reflected problems in broader society. “I think that as America has become more and more unequal, affluent parents have become desperate to pass on their privileges to their children and avoid downward mobility at all costs,” he said.
Fair access to education, the engine of upward mobility, he suggested, is the casualty.