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(CNN) —  

The college admissions scandal reinforced for many what they have long believed: That the process can be gamed by those with wealth and influence.

It has spurred discussions about why factors such as donations, athletics and legacy status are baked into the admissions process, which has traditionally benefitted wealthy families. Yet affirmative action, which is intended to help underrepresented minorities, gets intense scrutiny and legal challenges.

“Some people have said wealth is affirmative action for white people,” said Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University.

It is not affirmative action that threatens the fairness in the college admissions process, its supporters say, but rather the advantages of the rich and powerful.

Fifty people – from Hollywood stars and top industry CEOs to college coaches and standardized test administrators – are accused of participating in a scheme to cheat on admissions tests and to get students into leading institutions as athletes regardless of their abilities, prosecutors revealed Tuesday in a federal indictment.

“These families exposed a system and I hope (this) injects into the American imagination just how much money and backdoor ways that wealthy, especially white wealthy families, get into college and universities,” Jack said.

Larry Summers, the former Harvard University president, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that there needs to be a lot of soul-searching in higher education.

Americans are “not entirely wrong” to think “that elites are rigging the system for their own benefit and for the benefit of their families,” he said.

Discourse around affirmative action

The scandal has hit a nerve, going beyond discussions about elitism and raising issues of race.

“Imagine believing it’s affirmative action that’s the problem with college admissions,” the ACLU tweeted.

Jack says there is a connection between the scandal and affirmative action.

“It’s so written into the American imagination that these spots (at prestigious institutions) are for white people and anytime a black student or a Latinx student gets in, it’s taking a spot away from them. That’s not what’s happening,” said Jack, the author of “The Privileged Poor,” about the experience of low-income students at elite universities.

“What this is exposing,” he said of the scandal, “is the steps and the leaps and bounds that wealthy families take to secure a spot that is rightfully no one’s – that they think they have proprietary ownership of.”

Many underrepresented minorities say they’re constantly having to prove themselves and their qualifications for a spot.

A person of color has to “prove yourself at every turn,” said Tiffany Cross, the co-founder and managing editor of The Beat DC, in a panel discussion on “CNN Tonight” with Don Lemon.

“You can be an Ivy League graduate and show up to the table and somebody’s going to question your existence there. Nobody ever asked, ‘How did this basic, ordinary person next to me, who isn’t a person of color, earn their space here?’”

02:55 - Source: CNNBusiness
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Yet there is little discussion about underqualified white students who benefit from preferences in the admissions process such as sports, family influence and legacies, some say.