College bribery scandal trials should be just the beginning

Now that the first prison sentence has been handed down in the college admissions scandal (with many more likely to follow), it is tempting to think that - with the wrongdoers going to jail and the corruption in the system unmasked - we can put the scandal behind us and return to business as usual.

If only it were that simple.

Unfortunately, the problems revealed by the federal investigation are the tip of the iceberg. The rot in our college admissions system has been obvious for years, if not decades. In 2006, after teaching for several years at a private high school in New York and seeing firsthand what parents were willing to do to get their children into a good college, I published Academy X, a satirical novel about how the college admissions process was corrupt and corrupting. And I was hardly the only one pointing this out. Numerous other books - fiction and nonfiction - have been published in recent years on the same subject.

The problem has been getting incrementally worse each year as parents look for new ways to give their children an advantage. It started innocuously enough - SAT prep classes, a well-connected friend writing a recommendation letter - and progressed from there to the current scandal with wealthy parents hiring ringers to take the SAT or bribing coaches to recruit their children for sports they do not even play. It is a never-ending arms race. And as the competition has grown fiercer, the tactics have become shadier.

The FBI investigation has focused on William Singer's college prep service (which has a price tag nearly as exorbitant as college itself), but there are countless other college prep businesses. I am not saying they all engage in fraudulent activities. But the simple truth is that they are designed to push the envelope, to look for new ways to give an applicant an edge. You don't pay places like that tens of thousands of dollars to fix run-on sentences or find a great SAT tutor. You pay them to figure out a way to get your child into a top college. In that environment, ethical boundaries are all too often ignored.

This is a betrayal not just of hardworking students who can't afford these kinds of services - it's a betrayal of the promise of America. This country is supposed to be a meritocracy. Given hard work, you can rise as high as your talent will take you. Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin and became perhaps our greatest president. Andrew Carnegie worked as a boy in a cotton factory and went on to become one of the most successful industrialists in the nation's history. That's the American dream.

For our meritocracy to work, though, a trustworthy college admissions process is essential. This scandal is just the canary in the coal mine warning us of a much larger problem we need to address. This will not be easy. Many issues play a role, including deep structural inequities that will be difficult to fix. But we can make a start by no longer ignoring obvious problems, such as high-priced college prep services. That would hardly solve all of the issues surrounding the process, but it would address one of the most egregious abuses.

We need to do more than punish those caught up in the scandal. We need serious reform not just for all of the students out there diligently striving to get into a good college but for ourselves as a nation.

Andrew Trees, of Lake Forest, is a visiting assistant professor at Roosevelt University and the author of "The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character."

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