When you can buy your way in. And therein lies the resonance of the Varsity Blues case. One of the most reassuring fictions we hear is this: if you work hard and play by the rules, you can go anywhere. That's not true and never has been true, especially where higher education is concerned, but it's not news.
My alma mater is Beloit College. Beloit is a fine school and I received a good education there, as did my classmates. In the higher education world, Beloit is well regarded, but it's down the pecking order a bit from the top liberal arts colleges. In most of the rankings one sees, Beloit travels with schools like Lawrence, Knox, Kalamazoo, Earlham, Wooster, like that. If you were to slot Beloit among Minnesota liberal arts colleges, it would fall behind Carleton and Macalester and would be roughly comparable to St. Olaf, but a touch ahead of Gustavus, although St. Olaf and Beloit are very different places. I have worked with people who graduated from all of the Minnesota schools I've mentioned here and, qualitatively, there's no real difference in the education they received. As regular readers of this feature know, Benster is a graduate of Knox.
So why does it matter? The real value of a college isn't the education as much as it is the opportunities you get from being part of the alumni network. If you are a graduate of Beloit College, your resume will get reviewed, but if you are a graduate of Georgetown, or USC, you might get put higher up on the pile. And if the big boss knows what Hoya Saxa means, it could count a lot down the line. But are grads of these prestigious schools more talented? On the margin, yes, but it's not a sure thing. And that's what gnaws at people.