The recent scandal involving admissions-fixing has riveted public opinion, and rightly so. It has generated outrage at the obvious unfairness that underlies Rick Singer's brazen scheme, and again rightly so. But I think people's reactions to this scheme somewhat miss the mark.
First, there is the widespread assumption that this is just the tip of the iceberg. People assume that the system has been corrupted by the rich and well-connected. The first point is almost definitely false and the second one almost certainly true.
I've been tutoring the children of the elite in the Bay Area for 30 years, and I've never heard this level of cheating. I also know other tutors of the rich, in the Bay Area and New York City, and they also have never heard of anything comparable to what Singer organized.
When I first started tutoring in the 1980s, kids would hide dictionaries in the tanks of toilets to look up vocabulary words during their breaks. And of course there was the occasional student who would impersonate another and take the test posing as someone else, sometimes out of friendship and sometimes for money.
These small-time plans, while detestable, never had such a corrosive effect on the overall consciousness.
People today are furious because the SAT scandal feeds into the overall narrative that we live in a fundamentally unfair society. They believe that the American Dream of meritocracy and equal opportunity is a sham, a fig leaf to cover up a rigged system.
While I certainly wouldn't go that far, I do believe these critics have sensed something true, even as they're a little hazy on the specifics.
For instance, Stanford University has about 1,800 students per class, but there must be 12,000 to 15,000 applicants each year who are intellectually capable of doing the work. How does Stanford decide? How should it?
One suggestion has been to set an admissions threshold and then hold a lottery for all the students who have cleared the bar. This approach, while it certainly has its flaws, would at least remove the sense of unfairness that permeates our current system. What happens today is that well-connected students almost always gain admission when they are reasonable applicants.
Let me be clear -- I'm not talking about the successful Palo Alto family with two professionals. I'm referring to the elites who have close contacts on the trustee level to put in a good word for them.
While this situation is clearly unfair, there obviously aren't that many people at that tier of society. The more mundane and pernicious problems come from holes in the system that your garden-variety rich parents exploit regularly.
Most notably, the wealthy have figured out how to game the system of gaining extra time on the exams. While the idea of granting accommodations to students with learning differences is noble in theory, in practice it is an advantage for the wealthy.
To give some context, I know of an extremely competitive private school where 10 years ago about 40 percent of the students received extra time on their standardized tests. The system has been tightened up in recent years, but there are still problems. In my practice about 20 percent of my students in the past year have been granted extra time on these tests. The simplest solution would be for the College Board to add 10 to 20 percent more time per section to the test, greatly reducing the advantage gained from being granted extra time.
In contrast, I do some work for Ceres, California, just outside of Modesto. This is a city of immigrants and people starting out on the lower rungs of our society, but the students I'm helping with their SATs are bright, conscientious kids who want to succeed.
But Ceres hasn't had a single student with testing accommodations in the last 20 years, covering about 15,000 students. The school district doesn't have the time and resources to devote to this issue. The parents don't know about these sorts of loopholes and certainly couldn't afford private testing (with costs that often run into the thousands of dollars) even if they did.
Making systemic changes to develop equality of opportunity will be the best path to generating fairer outcomes in the college admissions process.
• Listen to the March 15 episode of "Behind the Headlines," where Palo Alto college adviser John Raftrey discusses the implications of the nationwide admissions bribery scandal, now available on our YouTube channel and podcast.