The college admissions process has long been open to legal if dubious exploitation by the wealthy, powerful and well-connected

To longtime critics of the college admissions process, the very complicated and very expensive fraud alleged against Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, designer Mossimo Giannulli (Loughlin’s husband) and dozens of other wealthy and powerful people seems like so much needless effort.

The far easier thing would have been for them to openly flaunt their money and status in front of prospective colleges and let the pull of their privilege do the rest.

Even better — even if such exploitation is immoral, it’s not illegal.

“One of the puzzles of this case is: Why did these families bother to go to this extreme?” journalist Dan Golden told the New Yorker last week in the wake of the charges against Huffman, Loughlin, Giannulli and some 47 others.

“Why did they pay so much money to fake their kids having athletic preference or have somebody else take their tests? Why didn’t they simply contribute a lot of money to the university?” Golden wondered, adding, “There are so many advantages anyway, and giving money usually meets such a receptive audience, that it is a little puzzling why they would have to engage in this kind of criminal activity.”

Golden, a senior editor at ProPublica, is the author of 2006’s The Price of Admission, an investigative work of nonfiction that is exactly what it sounds like. (It is subtitled “How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.”)

Speaking with PEOPLE, Golden, who has long chronicled the ways “money pollutes the process” of higher education, says The Price of Admission was meant as a bomb thrown against the facade of meritocratic admissions: the idea that any student, regardless of background, could gain access to any school with the right amount of hard work, great grades and high test scores.

“When I started researching my book, colleges maintained with a straight face that it was an even playing field,” Golden says. “They said that legacy preference [the bias toward descendants of alumni] was only a tie-breaker between equal applicants and that there was a firewall between fundraising and admissions and admissions was a completely merit-based process. And that was the point of my book: to explode that, to destroy those arguments.”

He believes he’s been successful: “Nobody really takes those points seriously anymore.”

Prosecutors have taken care to draw a line between the usual advantages the wealthy and powerful bestow to their children in college admissions and what the suspects in “Operation Varsity Blues” allegedly did.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, in announcing the charges on Tuesday, said this:

“The parents charged today, despite already being able to give their children every legitimate advantage in the college admissions game, instead chose to corrupt and illegally manipulate the system for their benefit.”

“We’re not talking about donating the building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter,” he continued. “We’re talking about deception and fraud, fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.”

Generally speaking, many colleges assure prospective students that a central piece of their admissions criteria is academic performance. But other factors are factored in, such as community service and personal background. (Both Georgetown and the University of Southern California, which prosecutors said was targeted by parents in “Operation Varsity Blues,” take a “holistic” approach in reviewing applicants.)

Athletes applying to the schools in “Operation Varsity Blues” also received special exceptions, according to federal authorities — which they say was exploited by coaches bribed into pretending underperforming students were actually gifted recruits.

“There is something special about the academic enterprise, about the education and fostering learning, and I applaud all that,” Golden tells PEOPLE. “But unfortunately those noble goals often get side-tracked by the desire to bring in money.”

He says that while “the perception” of the system has changed, the system itself has not.

“If anything,” he says, “it’s gotten worse.”

Which brings us to Jared Kushner.

The Truth About Kushner’s Admission to Harvard — but He’s Not Alone

“Operation Varsity Blues,” as prosecutor Lelling made clear, is not about legal behavior. But the investigation’s vast and scuzzy details have inspired a related conversation about the crazy-making opacity of most college admissions: the sense that, when top schools say they take a “holistic” approach to who to let in, what they too often mean is that they will ignore mediocre academics in favor of the promise of a big donation from a wealthy family or the buzzy press of a celebrity student on campus or the preservation of the status quo.

In his book The Chosen, sociologist Jerome Karabel traces the decades-long evolution of admissions standards at Harvard, Princeton and Yale — puncturing, in his view, the myth of objective “merit” completely. Instead, he argues, the three top Ivy League schools have long shaped their admissions policies according to other concerns, including race, religion and gender as well as class.

“As America has become more and more unequal, affluent parents have become increasingly desperate to pass on their advantages to their children and to avoid downward mobility at all costs,” Karabel told the New York Times recently. “Elite colleges have become seen as insurance against downward mobility.”

It’s a dynamic that Golden also details in The Price of Admission. He isn’t afraid to name names, arguing the college admissions of the scions of various political or powerful families were the result of exactly the wrong kind of hard work.

Golden writes in his book: “Princeton accepted Harrison Frist [son of former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist] not because it believed in his intellectual potential but because his family had lavished tens of millions of dollars on a new student center, and his father was both a national figure and a former trustee of the university. In fact, Princeton’s admissions staff gave Harrison the lowest ranking on its scale for evaluating applicants’ academic credentials.”

Likewise Albert Gore III, son of former Vice President Al Gore, was admitted to Harvard in the shadow of Bill Clinton’s presidency. “America’s most prestigious university wouldn’t pass up the son of an alumnus and former member of its board of overseers who stood several hundred disputed Florida votes away from being president of the United States,” Golden writes.

Both Vice President Gore and Majority Leader Frist were alumni of their son’s schools.

There were others, including John F. Kennedy Jr., who according to Golden was wooed by Brown, which was willing to overlook his “mixed academic record in private school” in exchange for the halo effect of his admission. Yet JFK Jr.’s “scholastic deficiencies” lingered, Golden writes: He failed the New York bar exam twice.

More recently, Golden also tells the story of a then-unknown young man, eldest son of a wealthy real estate family in New Jersey, named Jared Kushner, now the president’s son-in-law and senior aide.

Kushner’s millionaire father, Charles, “had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted,” Golden wrote in ProPublica in 2016.

Though a Kushner spokeswoman dismissed Golden’s argument that wealth greased his entry — “is and always has been false,” she told ProPublica at the time — officials at Kushner’s high school were dismayed.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” one told Golden. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”

The Kushner spokeswoman cast the issue differently in 2016, writing to Golden: “Jared Kushner was an excellent student in high school and graduated from Harvard with honors.” His parents, the spokeswoman wrote, “are enormously generous and have donated over 100 million dollars to universities, hospitals and other charitable causes.”

Golden says Kushner is “the poster boy” for the larger discussion about the invisible bias of college admissions. But the issue goes far beyond him.

The Trump family has been caught up in it. After the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted disparagingly about Huffman and Loughlin last week, a Trump biographer responded to him arguing that Don Jr.’s entrance to the University of Pennsylvania, which his father and his siblings Ivanka and Tiffany also attended, was helped by his dad’s pledged donation at the time. (A Trump Organization spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about this.)

“When it comes to trying to get your kids into the elite colleges, it’s not a matter of party affiliation or ideology. It’s across the board,” Golden tells PEOPLE, “which is one reason why it’s so hard to change.”

Still, change may be coming. The fear of it is already here.

A Hollywood source, who lives in Los Angeles but is not personally connected to Huffman or Loughlin, tells PEOPLE “everybody is obsessed with this story. This is all anyone is talking about right now.”

The fascination, this source says, is a mixture of schadenfreude and anxiety: marveling at the fraud allegedly committed and concern about how that might dull the shine of their own status in helping their kids get into school.

Parents are “worried how this will impact their own kids when they apply to college,” says the source. “The thinking is that schools are going to accept fewer legacies and fewer kids from wealthier families now because of this.”

The source adds: “People want to see how this will shake out. Things are going to change, for sure.”

Lelling, the federal prosecutor, did not lose sight of the many unknowable costs of the crimes he described last week.

“Every year, hundreds of thousands of hardworking, talented students strive for admission to elite schools,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “As every parent knows, these students work harder and harder every year in a system that appears to grow more and more competitive every year. And that system is a zero-sum game.”

This is not abstraction: A 2012 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows there is a large pool of “high-achieving, low income students” who never think to apply to America’s best schools despite significant evidence they would excel there.

Some economists believe this is a failure of marketing or even imagination: These students don’t always know what services are available to them, don’t think they could ever afford an elite education or could not picture themselves in the student body.

It’s the inverse of the entitlement prosecutors said that they uncovered.

“For every student admitted through fraud,” Lelling said, “an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

• With reporting by KC BAKER