The US university admissions scandal highlights the class divide, write Michelle R. Smith and Deepti Hajela.

The families ensnared in the US university bribery scandal embody wealth and privilege in America: CEOs, Hollywood stars, Wall Street millionaires. A California vineyard owner. A prominent Manhattan lawyer.

If they're villains, they're villains made to order for a time preoccupied with deep divisions of class, privilege and race — a time when many regular Americans often feel they have no chance of getting ahead in a system that's engineered in favour of the richest of the rich.

For those Americans, the corruption in the university admission system exposed by Wednesday's indictments further shatters any notion that hard work, good grades and perseverance are the way to get into a prestigious school.

"For most people outside the elite, these institutions might as well be on the moon. This story just reinforces that, the way in which money buys opportunity in America," said Richard V. Reeves, whose book Dream Hoarders argues that the American upper-middle class hoards opportunities.

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Prosecutors said dozens of parents paid bribes to alter their children's test scores or get them into universities such as Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and USC as athletic recruits, fraudulently.

In court papers, the ringleader explained the realities of getting into top universities in the United States in stark terms: There's the front door, which involves getting in legitimately through academic achievements. There's the back door, which involves donating huge sums of money to a university to influence admissions decisions.

His scheme — much easier and cheaper — was through the side door.

The back door was common knowledge, and bad enough. The description of a side door — a corrupt advantage on top of the advantages already accorded the rich — has set off outrage, especially for hard-working kids trying to get in on merit.

Lalo Alcaraz's son is a Los Angeles high school senior who is waiting to hear back from over a dozen schools that he's applied to, including some in the top tier.

"It really infuriates me right now. These people jumped ahead in line of my kid, I mean, literally my kid, this year," said the author and cartoonist.

For Alcaraz, there's also outrage at seeing wealthy, white families try to cheat the system, especially when many minorities have experienced being questioned over whether they got their spots because of their race.

"They had all the advantages but they had to cheat," he said.

The scandal resonated largely because it's hard to avoid conversations these days about the wealth gap, the 1 per cent and a "rigged system", a term used by Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — and by President Donald Trump, though the billionaire developer-turned-politician and his Administration exemplify that system to many.

Wealthy parents can pay for a stellar education from pre-school through to high school, athletic coaches and test prep, as well as donations to the Ivy League schools — all legal ways to influence admissions decisions. They have personal or legacy connections at elite schools that they can use to gain admission. They understand how to navigate the complicated admission system.

In his 2006 book The Price of Admission, journalist Daniel Golden detailed how the real estate developer father of Jared Kushner — Trump's son-in-law — pledged US$2.5 million ($3.6m) to Harvard in 1998. Kushner was later admitted, even though his high school administrators told Golden they didn't think he was qualified.

There are other impediments to the non-elite. Research has shown that the all-important college admissions tests are biased and not a good predictor of university success for black students, said Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and policy at Ohio State University.

Hamilton said social movements led by the young were contesting the notion that Americans live in a meritocracy where they can improve their standing by working hard and playing by the rules.

"We've had over 50 years of accumulation among the elite and stagnation among everyone else, and the millennial generation is beginning to feel it the worst," he said.

Reeves cited the work of a group of researchers led by a team now based at Harvard which found that children whose parents are in the top 1 per cent are 77 times more likely to attend top elite schools than those whose parents are in the bottom 20 per cent.

Most colleges targeted in the admissions scandal took more kids in the top 1 per cent than they did from all of the bottom 60 per cent, he said.

Students at Brown University recently reported for the Providence Journal about exclusive dinners that were held for students whose parents are big-money donors and other prominent people. The former trustee who hosted the events reportedly told attendees he wanted them to get to know each other and that perhaps they would end up marrying one another.

Brown's president later insisted the Ivy League school was "committed to equitable access to opportunities for all students", but the story set off a furious debate on campus, with calls for less elitism among Brown students.

"College is the way to escape poverty and the working class and to do well. And the fact that the system is so stacked against regular people is highly disturbing," said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York-based thinktank, who edited the 2010 book Affirmative Action for the Rich, about legacy preferences.

Irene Sanchez, who teaches Latino studies in a high school near Los Angeles, said most of her students who are considering higher education at all are looking at community college, even though she teaches a university prep class.

The situation has hit her hard, she said. Sanchez has a PhD. Frequently, people question her qualifications, suggesting she got her spot only because she is Latina.

She said the idea of the meritocracy is a myth, but one that the elites need everyone else to believe "to protect their advantages in society". "They need people like my students to believe that, in meritocracy, that they didn't work hard enough and that's why they're in the situation that they're in," she said. "But in reality, this meritocracy myth I feel teaches people that we're not good enough or we're not smart enough."

Students: Applicants who played by rules were victimised

In one of the first lawsuits to come out of the university bribery scandal, several students are suing Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and other schools involved in the case, saying they and others were denied a fair shot at admission.

The plaintiffs brought the class-action complaint in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of themselves and other applicants, asking for unspecified damages and the return of all application fees.

They argued that applicants who played by the rules were victimised when rich and famous parents paid bribes that enabled unqualified students to get into highly selective universities.

"Each of the universities took the students' admission application fees while failing to take adequate steps to ensure that their admissions process was fair and free of fraud, bribery, cheating and dishonesty," the lawsuit said.

Legal experts, however, said the students could have difficulty holding the colleges responsible.

- AP