College admissions scandal involving Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin was a long time coming. Here's how the system got so rigged.

Erin Richards

For a subset of the American public, the annual race to get into top-tier schools is marked by anxious teenagers, mountains of paperwork, and the occasional wealthy parent who makes a large donation to a university advancement office to influence an admission decision.

But the complexity of the largest-ever college admissions scandal laid out in a federal indictment and strengthened by a rogue consultant's guilty plea in court Tuesday took everything a step higher, revealing bribed coaches, falsified athletic records and impersonator exam takers. 

Many experts weren't surprised. They say the scandal was a natural next step in a world of college admissions that has long favored the rich at the expense of the poor.

Here's how the system got so rigged:

Colleges want everything

"The system is vulnerable because the system is corrupt to begin with," said Kevin Carey, vice president of education policy for New America, a left-leaning Washington, D.C. nonprofit think tank.

"Colleges want everything," he said. "They want very smart students and also the children of famous celebrities and also money in their endowments and also really good (rowing) teams and you can’t have all that unless you corrupt the underlying principal of accepting kids based on merit."

The newest weak point appears to be athletic coaches who accepted bribes to recommend unqualified students for positions on non-elite sports teams.

But Carey challenged the idea of whether that was so different from very rich parents buying a university building to get their children a second look, a move that's become so common it fails to register as unfair with most of the American public.

In this July 10, 2013, file photo, prospective students tour Georgetown University's campus in Washington. Federal authorities have charged college coaches and others in a sweeping admissions bribery case in federal court.

Parents are desperate

College has become such a status symbol that even celebrity parents were allegedly willing to break the rules to get their child a slot in an elite school, according to the federal complaint.

"I don't think we should be super surprised," said Bari Norman, the co-founder and director of counseling at Expert Admissions, a Manhattan-based firm that helps teens around the world prepare for the exams and college applications that will determine the next four years of their lives.

"It speaks to the desperation of parents and just how high stakes college admissions have become," Norman added. "And unfortunately, it speaks to a lot of the messages we’re sending to kids, which is the most concerning part of this story."

Admittance rates are dropping at elite schools

More students are applying for college, but Ivy League schools are admitting a smaller share of students than ever before. Harvard University and Stanford University, for example, only admitted about 5 percent of applicants, according to a recent list of the nation's 100 schools with the lowest acceptance rates by U.S. News.

As admittance rates have plunged, the stress placed on getting into them has gone up, Norman said.

The admissions process is not well-regulated

"The woman who cuts my hair is under far more state and federal regulation than my colleagues are," said Arun Ponnusamy, the chief academic officer of Collegewise, a college consulting firm based in Irvine, Calif.

Ponnusamy said the college counseling industry has several professional associations that feature codes of ethics, but there's nothing to stop someone from acting on his or her own.

As for oversight at universities, Ponnusamy said some colleges' admissions and athletic offices are tightly coordinated. But other schools would not devote the time or resources to fact-check the athletic record of every student recommended for admission by a coach.

Rich kids get ahead at the expense of the poor

More students today are applying to college, but just 9 percent of low-income students complete their college degrees within six years, compared to 73 percent of upper-income students, said Eric Waldo, the executive director of Reach Higher, an effort designed to increase college opportunities for all students.

For centuries, Ivy League schools historically admitted only wealthy, white males. While admissions have broadened to include students of exceptional ability no matter their race or income, those students often feel out-of-place at the colleges that remain dominated by rich students.

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"There are loads of students of color on these campuses who are forced to walk around thinking, 'I don’t belong here,' and now it's clear that you have white, privileged kids who definitely don't belong there," said Ponnusamy, from Collegewise.

Carey, from New America, said elite schools are new to the idea of full meritocracy.

"Now I think that fact is being thrown into stark relief," he said.

Schools narrowly defined success. Parents responded. 

Todd Rose, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, said the scandal is an outgrowth of what the American education system has narrowly defined as success for students: high grades, high scores on standardized tests, being a team leader, and getting into the best college.

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"The thing that bothers me is that it doesn’t matter how talented your kid is, and what they have to contribute to society, it’s how well you can play this game and how well you can take this test, which is already on a bell curve so 50 percent of people have to fail it."

Rose said he's working on survey research that shows that the majority of Americans actually desire a more nuanced picture of success.

Others played the game, he said, and cheated to get ahead.  

More: Can Felicity Huffman's and Lori Loughlin's careers ever recover from college bribery scam?

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College admissions scandal involving Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin was a long time coming. Here's how the system got so rigged.