The scandal has ignited a national conversation about the role money plays in college admissions. In particular, commentators seized on one remark from federal prosecutor Andrew Lelling.
"We're not talking about donating a building, so that a school is more likely to accept your son or daughter," Lelling said. "We're talking about deception and fraud."
But a lot of college students say there's really not that much of a difference, including students at Brown University.
Marcus Mitchell is a freshman at Brown. He said wealthy students have advantages like college tutors and their parents' connections.
"If you don't have money, it's very hard to compete with someone who does have money," Mitchell said.
Brown was not involved in the indictments, but it is no stranger to the ways exorbitant wealth can buy students greater access and connections. Brown students were outraged last month when The Providence Journal reported on exclusive dinners organized to give students from elite families somewhere to mingle.
Across town in Providence, at Classical High School, Lou Toro is preparing for another wave of admission letters to his students. He’s the head guidance counselor at Classical, a public high school where many of the students are from working class and low-income families. When Toro first heard about the scandal, he thought about students like his.
"What about that student who’s doing what they have to do everyday?" Toro said. "Grinding it out. Doing the good grades. Doing the extracurriculars. Parents do not have financial means. What about those kids who have received a “no” letter, because someone had the ability to do an end run?"
Toro’s students are not from families that have that kind of money. Many of the students at this school come from families that qualify for food stamps, and Toro says many of the seniors here would be the first in their families to go to college. But that’s what makes his job rewarding, Toro says. To see these students earn it.
"To watch the parents’ faces when their kids get into a college, what a door of opportunity we just opened for a student," he said. "Really, like, the American dream. It’s the drive and stamina that these kids go through which are making them great college students. I think our society is better for those kids that did it on their own. "
Among the coaches and educational professionals caught up in the case: local sports legend Gordie Ernst.
Ernst grew up in a family famous for its athletic prowess. He was no exception.
"In talking about high school athletes and the stars of stars, Gordie Ernst would have to rank right up there," said Mike Szostak, who was a longtime sportswriter at The Providence Journal. "He could do it all."
Szostak ticks off Ernst’s accomplishments as a high school athlete: all-star on the hockey team, four state championships in tennis, a stunning 97-and-0 record in men’s singles over his four years.
"He was the golden boy," Szostak said, "one of the greatest high school athletes in those two sports."
He went on to coach tennis at Georgetown University. His side gig was being a personal instructor for First Lady Michelle Obama and her daughters. Most recently, he ended up back in his home state, coaching women’s tennis at the University of Rhode Island.
That’s how Gordie Ernst was known before Tuesday. Then fifty people were charged in what the Department of Justice called the largest college admissions scam it has ever prosecuted. Ernst was among those charged, and he's one of nine college coaches facing federal racketeering charges.
"In return for bribes, these coaches agreed to pretend that certain applicants were recruited, competitive athletes," said Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. "In fact, the applicants were not. As the coaches knew the, athlete’s credentials were fabricated."
Prosecutors said during his six years as Georgetown’s tennis coach, Ernst accepted $2.7 million in bribes. In exchange, on twelve separate occasions, he allegedly told admissions officers that a particular student was a recruit. At least three of those 12 applicants didn’t play tennis at all.
At the University of Rhode Island, officials say Ernst is now on administrative leave. The university also says he has not been involved in recruiting any of its current players.