That college admission is a commodity for sale is an open secret—one I was aware of even in my naïve student days. As with any such practice, there arose a set of norms and laws governing the legal and acceptable ways of buying admission. For example, donating large sums of money or funding a building are well within the norms and the laws. Recently, however, celebrities and other elites broke the norms and the laws in their efforts to get their children into elite colleges. On the face of it, there is no real need to argue that what they did was morally wrong—such an argument would garner almost no opposition. What is more interesting is considering the matter in the context of fairness.
On the surface, the actions of the accused fraudsters are clearly unfair. While the tactics varied from student to student, they included altering admission test results, bribing coaches to accept non-athletes as recruited athletes, and direct bribes. Interestingly, much of the commentary on these misdeeds makes note of the fact that these elites could have used the above-mentioned legal and acceptable methods of getting their children into elite institutions. As far as why they did not, one explanation is that for some mere admission was not enough, their children had to believe that they earned their admission. It has also been claimed that status beyond that of mere admission was desired. The unfairness arises because the children did not earn their admission or their status by their merits, thus they might have unjustly taken the places of students who merited admission or status. While the parents did act unfairly, it is worth considering this unfairness within the broader context of our society.
As others have noted, the normal admission system is unfair. Children who are born to parents who lack wealth will generally live in poor neighborhoods and attend inferior schools. They will also have far less opportunity to engage in the application buffing activities available to the well-off. These children will also not be able to afford tutors, test preparation training, personal statement coaches and so on. They will also generally lack the connections that can influence admission. In contrast, children born into wealth will enjoy a cornucopia of advantages when it comes to admission.
It might be countered that some notable people did arise from poverty to attend elite institutions and go on to great success, while some people born into wealth have been academic and life losers. The easy and obvious reply is to note that such anecdotes are interesting but to point out that this is a matter of statistics. It is true that some people succeed despite the incredible odds, but the compelling nature of their story proves the general point: only the most exceptional or lucky people can make it out of poverty and reach the elites schools. If this was a common occurrence, such success would be unremarkable—as are the stories of how the wealthy elite get to attend elite schools.
In general, college admissions are like the rest of life. To use an analogy, both are like a race in which some people must run on foot, some get bikes, and some get cars. Some also get their own special starting lines that are far into the course. While one can certainly speak of the ability or merits of people in these races, the competition is fundamentally unfair in artificial and intentional ways. I do, obviously, recognize that people vary greatly in abilities. My point is, to stick to the analogy, that even the most talented runner is going to have a hard time competing with someone who gets to race with a car (especially if the parents or paid professionals are driving the car).
While the elites cheated, they cheated in an already unfair race. To continue the analogy, their children already got to start far into the course and were driving fast cars in competition with people forced to run or bike from a starting point far behind. These parents did do things analogous to cutting the course and using illegal modifications on their cars. While this certainly matters, it does not matter that much from the perspective of those who were already competing by running or biking. Again, I am not denying that people do vary in ability or that no one ever wins this race on foot or that no one crashes their metaphorical car. My point is that if fairness truly matters, then we should not just be outraged when the elites cheat in an unfair system, we should be outraged by the unfair system.