Ben Margot, AP
Students walk on the Stanford University campus, Thursday, in Santa Clara, Calif. In the first lawsuit to come out of the college 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 Wednesday in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of themselves and other applicants and asked for unspecified damages.

The federal prosecution of an alleged multimillion-dollar bribery racket aimed at helping the kids of wealthy families get into prestigious colleges has exposed a culture of corruption stunning in its scope and shocking as to the depth of the legal and ethical depravity it reveals.

The case should prompt institutions of higher learning everywhere to undertake a review of their admissions policies in search of places where outright cheating and influence peddling can give financially privileged students an edge over those who deserve entrance based on merit.

An integral part of the alleged scheme involves the manipulation of scores on the SAT, a primary component of an admissions application. That SAT scores can be so easily massaged raises the question as to their ultimate value as a marker for college entrance. It also demands that test designers and administrators do what they can in the wake of the scandal to assure the integrity of the testing process.

Most disturbing is the staggering level of ethical desertion demonstrated by those who would offer bribes in exchange for granting admission, and by those who would accept them. A high-level official at the University of Southern California’s athletic department is alleged to have taken more than $1 million in bribes over a period of years to open up slots in sports programs for students with no qualifications in the sport. Such behavior deserves to be met with rigorous prosecution and significant punishment.

The process of granting college entrance based on athletic ability has, in this scandal and in others, been shown to be ripe for abuse. Again, the question is raised as to whether U.S. institutions are putting too much emphasis on their sports programs, particularly to the extent that such emphasis might detract from investment in scholastic endeavors.

Unlike most criminal prosecutions, this case does not enumerate a particular victim, or class of victims. Truly qualified kids who were denied admission could certainly be regarded as victims, but it would be impossible to identify such individuals in the scope of a criminal prosecution. In the bigger picture, the scandal will certainly leave the institutions involved with significant scars, marking the inability of their leaders to protect their school’s integrity.

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Also, there is the matter of overall fairness, and the lofty social objective of ensuring a level playing field for children. This scandal is particularly poignant at a time when many Americans feel the economic playing cards are stacked against them, and when a college education is increasingly vital as a vehicle for prosperity.

An institution of higher learning should function as a meritocracy in which hard work, talent and honest accomplishment are recognized and rewarded. When financial incentives trump merit, the system fails. This scandal demands more than soul-searching; it calls for a concerted effort among institutions and their governors to see that any such behavior, under any guise, is not tolerated.