(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The most striking thing about this week’s college-admissions scandal has been its wider resonance. The narrow facts of the alleged crimes committed were seen as shocking and yet, in many quarters, not so surprising. What happened, it’s argued, is symptomatic of bigger, broader problems in U.S. higher education.

There’s a germ of truth in that view. For one thing, if even a handful of misguided parents are willing to pay enormous bribes and engage in reckless dishonesty to get their children into elite schools, you have to wonder about the value society as a whole attaches to an elite-school education. Indeed, much of this week’s commentary discusses the great lengths many law-abiding parents go to in gaming the college-admissions system.

Yet one shouldn’t lose sight of a hard distinction — between, on the one hand, the legitimate efforts of colleges and parents to advance their interests and, on the other, outright criminality and the failure of basic management standards.

It’s under this second heading that this week’s scandal demands immediate attention. The Justice Department’s prosecutions suggest that schools have extraordinarily weak procedures to guard against fraud and malpractice. In some cases, for instance, applicants given preference as outstanding athletes weren’t athletes of any kind. And cheating on tests, it seems, was systematized in a way that robust controls could have thwarted. What’s most telling is not that parents might wish to steal an unlawful advantage for their children — wrong as that is, and foolish so far as the children’s interests are concerned — but how easy such cheating seemed to be.

If they haven’t already, colleges need to introduce basic audit procedures to guard against fraudulent applications. And the administration of tests needs to be brought up to minimally acceptable standards.

The broader need for more strictly meritocratic access to elite schools is well worth debating: Are schools right to give such strong preference to legacy applicants, for instance, or to exceptional athletes? As part of this discussion, greater transparency on admissions procedures would certainly be welcome.

Building a fairer system of higher education is a noble endeavor — but not so straightforward. Denying hospitality to outright crime is a simpler challenge. The country’s elite institutions presumably have the brainpower to meet it.

—Editors: Clive Crook, Mary Duenwald.

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