“Operation Varsity Blues,” a series of federal fraud prosecutions currently playing out in federal court in Boston, has left some of us mystified. Parents eager to have their offspring admitted to top-rated colleges have been indicted for passing along money to those with influence over the admissions process, such as college athletic directors.

Rick Singer, a highly competitive sports coach at the center of this scandal, allegedly has collected money from these well-off parents who desperately sought his “assistance” gaining admission for the kids. Through bribery and lies, Singer focused his efforts on toying with the children’s standardized exam grades and athletic profiles in order to boost their chances of getting into these top schools.

Colleges caught-up in the scandal are embarrassed at the disclosure of the enormous advantage that college athletes have in gaining admission to elite institutions. The schools are mortified that their athletic directors and coaches were in on the scheme. Parents of students admitted by means of bribery are humiliated and, if you believe them as they face sentencing, contrite. Judges wax poetic as they castigate defendants for staining the college admission system. And the news media treats the “college admissions scandal” as a high-profile and newsworthy criminal story.

Well, maybe all of this is true – except for one thing: what these parents did does not amount to, or at least should not be considered, federal crimes. Perhaps Singer did act criminally for passing along money to coaches, and perhaps coaches did commit a crime when they pocketed the cash. But by giving money in order to facilitate their kids’ admission process, the parents seem more like victims than perpetrators of a corrupt college admissions system. The imposition of federal criminal law on fraudulent college admissions is itself a fraud, for it gives a gullible public the misleading impression that, without such activity as is described in these indictment, the system would be honest and would be a meritocracy.

This whole series of prosecutions is dependent on a corrupt federal criminal prosecutorial system where crimes are made up and shoe-horned into indictments because the behavior was accomplished by means of mail, wire, and interstate commerce. Without such jurisdictional “hooks,” the activities could not be prosecuted in federal court because they are not specified crimes in the federal criminal code. Yet, every single one of those charged has pleaded guilty (or will shortly do so). All have been or will be sentenced to a much shorter prison term than would have been if the case had gone to trial (statistically, over 95% of all federal prosecutions end in guilty pleas because of the hair-raising sentences that await a defendant who goes to trial and loses). And so there will be no opportunity to test within the federal courts whether these pay-offs are federal crimes or simply business-as-usual in the ugly, but probably legal system by which families get their kids admitted to elite colleges.

Rick Singer, the mastermind, will not be sentenced until the whole circus is over. Instead, Singer will be rewarded for his “cooperation” by being sentenced to a much shorter period of incarceration than most of the parents and coaches. There seems to be no real “justice” in the federal criminal justice system. There is no denying that the scandal is in fact a scandal, lacking all sense of morality and dignity. However, by shoe-horning the actions of Singer and the coaches and the parents into the framework of indictable offenses, we are ignoring the actual root of the problem – the corrupt but lawful and distressingly widespread system whereby wealthy parents buy their kids’ way into college by donating money or buildings to elite colleges.

Let us ask this: why should parents who allegedly buy their children’s admission into college be treated any differently from parents whose kids get admitted after the parents endow a building, a professorship, or an athletic coach’s position, or otherwise donate large sums to the institution that then finds their children, mirabile dictu, qualified for admission. In both cases, students with wealthy enough parents are the lucky ones, the ones who took away the opportunity from other children equally or even more academically qualified but less financially capable. How is the conduct illustrated by the Varsity Blues scandal any different from the common everyday practice of parents’ donating to a school to grease the admissions process for their kids?

Rick Singer knew what he was doing. He took advantage of a college admissions system that he molded to his liking and to his financial benefit. He knew what he was doing because our higher education system has been flawed for much too long. Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1951, had been aware of the admissions system that favors athletes, and of the questionable impact that the system had on academic quality. Hutchins enhanced the promotion of academic integrity and rigor by eliminating varsity football and instilling an education system where all could thrive based on academic merit.

Yet, we still live in a manipulative society where people believe that only the best credentialed will survive, and that only those who get into Ivy League (or equivalent) schools will be successful. U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton, who sentenced Lori Loughlin, one of the many wealthy and well-known parents involved in this scandal, expressed surprise that despite everything she had, she still sought to have more. But Loughlin’s and the other parents’ behaviors should not generate such judicial bewilderment. Their unethical behavior is a result of lifetimes spent in a society with unrealistic expectations. Be that as it may, instead of tackling this immense social dilemma, the Massachusetts United States Attorney and the FBI have chosen to feign ignorance of how the system works; they took the easy route of fabricating charges and imprisoning and fining all those accused. And with this lesson learned and taught, college will be free to return to their normal, perfectly lawful and accepted routine of giving admissions preference to wealthy families who endow buildings, professorships, and athletic programs and coaches.

Harvey Silverglate is GBH/News’ legal columnist. Emily Nayyer, a 2020 graduate of Suffolk University, is Silverglate’s research assistant.