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Guest Opinion: Making the college-admissions system more equitable

The rich have corrupted the system, but steps can be taken to restore a level playing field

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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.

Peter Baum
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.

Related content:

• 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.

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Peter Baum has been tutoring for the SAT and other standardized tests in the Palo Alto area since 1988. He can be emailed at

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16 people like this
Posted by The Public Interest
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 15, 2019 at 4:39 pm

"What happens today is that well-connected students almost always gain admission when they are reasonable applicants."

Nope. Not true at all. Many well connected students do not gain admission. Please stop spreading rumors.

And again, no, not all "wealthy" parents are gaming the system, but many expect their kids to gain admission on merit, just as they did.

25 people like this
Posted by @The Public Interest
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 15, 2019 at 4:50 pm

"Many well connected students do not gain admission. Please stop spreading rumors...And again, no, not all 'wealthy' parents are gaming the system, but many expect their kids to gain admission on merit, just as they did."

The lady protests too much.

Like this comment
Posted by Jes' sayin'...
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 15, 2019 at 5:21 pm

...DOTH protest too much, methinks.

Though to move downstream a little, I'm sure there are several good choices from Casablanca that would work, as well. (Casablanca *always* has an appropriate line!)

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 15, 2019 at 10:46 pm

^ "serves me right for not being musical"

Like this comment
Posted by student
a resident of Stanford
on Mar 16, 2019 at 9:30 am

[Post removed.]

12 people like this
Posted by AnthroMan
a resident of Stanford
on Mar 16, 2019 at 1:39 pm

Simple solution...lower the admission standards instead of continually raising them.

Allow full consideration to 2.0 GPA high school students with mediocre SAT scores.

Then all of this cheating will come to an abrupt end because no one will pay big money to have their grades & test scores lowered or feel the need to be fake athletes.

20 people like this
Posted by Seriously
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 16, 2019 at 1:58 pm


Continually raising admissions standards? Are you serious? That keep dumbing the SATa down every few years in response to political pressure from special interest groups. Entire new fake academic disciplines have been invented so that the increasing number of incapable students can graduate with with “degrees.”

A university degree used to indicate a high level of intellect and education. Those days are gone, outside of a few incorruptible fields such as chemistry and math.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 16, 2019 at 2:02 pm

I just read that the Marin Academy dad who presented at Tech Crunch (gee!) paid 50k to get his kid into a school (USC, I think). It dawned on me that’s about the cost of a year’s tuition. Most people take an amount like that seriously....”one year’s tuition...”
Never mind the serious ethical failings and criminality.
The news article questioned whether one should park their investments with an investment firm run by a man like this. He ran a “socially responsible” fund of > 1B in San Francisco....oh, the irony. Just the guy to lecture to us little folk in tech.
My answer is: No.

12 people like this
Posted by cheating?
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 16, 2019 at 2:44 pm

cheating? is a registered user.

"I've never heard this level of cheating."

What is the "lesser" level of cheating you have heard of or aware of, and how widespread?

21 people like this
Posted by 2e parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 16, 2019 at 3:11 pm

You make some very good points, but unfortunately, whether you mean it to or not, your conclusion lends itself to being interpreted as: kids who are getting timed accommodations are getting an unfair advantage and hardly anyone needs them. It also seems to assume, incorrectly, that all kids in Palo Alto are rich and therefore if you are from here and getting accommodations, you don’t deserve them. I don’t think you intended to mean that, but regardless, I think this is wrong. It’s also damaging and chilling to those who really need the accommodations.

According to the NCLD, about 5% of school-aged children nationally have had a learning disability formally identified. They say also that data “suggest that an additional 15% or more of students struggle due to unidentified and unaddressed learning and attention issues."

This is a great report from them about the sate of LD’s, especially the popular myths and misconceptions. I strongly suggest you read it.
Web Link

If 10-20% of your students are getting accommodations, it sounds as if the expected percentage with LD’s are getting what they need, i.e., when students have the resources, they get the help they need. If more than that were getting accommodations at another school, my first question would be whether the school attracted a certain kind of student who needed accommodations. Many students can get by better without accommodations if the academic program lends itself to allowing them to better compensate. Students who are 2e — both gifted but with learning disabilities — may seek programs that is are a good match for their learning, without ever having the disabilities identified. When the standardized tests come up, though, students like this may no longer be able to avoid that they need evaluation and accommodation. It’s absolutely possible that a population of an elite school could have more than its share of 2e students, since many districts in the area, including ours, do such an abysmal job with GATE and 2e education.

(My 2e child was only identified and properly assessed by testing as both profoundly gifted and having LD’s after having to leave PAUSD for high school because the SPED department, in concert with the top administrators, wasn’t just incompetent, they were organizationally abusive. 2e students can seem fine in some areas, and can compensate in others, and thus it’s easy to just punish them for their LD’s and claim they are fine. Students like these are most hurt when scandals like this one make people question accommodations, especially for 2e students who might be high functioning in some ways.)

More time is only an unfair advantage if the test is designed to trip people up who could otherwise do well on the test if given a little more time. Is that how the SAT is designed? If not, then there is nothing to fear from erring on the side of more time accommodations. It’s my understanding from the UC Berkeley disability office that research shows that students who don’t need accommodations will not do markedly better if they get them. But students who need them, will. The SAT should provide enough time so that time is not an issue for the majority of students. If that is not happening, I do think you are correct, that the College Board should just really find a way to make the tests longer.

This is not trivial, though, because those who are finished want to leave, or could be disruptive if they have to stay, and that opens up new problems that were solved by holding the test at the same exact time.

Your point that kids in lower SES areas aren’t getting the accommodations is well taken. One has only to look at our own district for why. The district has been so aggressive about not recognizing, not treating, and not accommodating special needs — we’re talking the opposite of what the law requires (their being proactive) — we're talking poisoning, backbiting, gossipy, gaslighting, retaliatory behavior, up to and including behavior calculated to look “official” that is really designed to cause stress, disconnection, or even hostility to get the families to leave the district. I was told our district has even pre-emptively sued special ed families and was told by the state to stop it.

What is clear if you know what’s going on at all, is that only people who can hire lawyers and special advocates, who are quite expensive (it might be $6,000-$10,000 for them to prepare for and be present at just one meeting) can afford to get what they need in our school district. And there’s a kind of ender’s game aspect to it — if rich parents are going to go to the trouble and expense, they're going to make sure the untrustworthy school entities are vanquished, i.e., only those who can afford to continue to pay for the lawyers get what they need, i.e., the kind of people you have as tutoring clients. Families who leave after the mistreatment make the calculation that they are better off putting their money into their child than fighting the school.

Local schools do not have programs for GATE students anymore, and they don’t do a good job with LD’s, much less in 2e children. My concern is that essays like yours will only further the public’s misunderstanding of necessary accommodations for students who really need them for their testing, including Palo Alto students.

15 people like this
Posted by Free PR
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 16, 2019 at 4:19 pm

Way to market yourself dude!!

6 people like this
Posted by Grew Up In Palo Alto
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 16, 2019 at 4:27 pm

To "Seriously":

I can't speak for you, but in my experience, the people who graduated in the last 10 years have a much better knowledge of software engineering, then I got when I graduated 30 years ago. And, it doesn't seem to matter if they went to an Ivy League school, or a mid-tier school. They are all stronger than an Ivy Leaguer was 30 years ago. At least that is my experience, having worked with lots of both.

6 people like this
Posted by Seriously
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 16, 2019 at 4:30 pm

@Grew Up In Palo Alto:

Fair enough... "chemistry, math, and software engineering," then.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Baum
a resident of another community
on Mar 16, 2019 at 11:30 pm

@ cheating....I tried to make clear the level of cheating I've heard about. It has tended to be one-off cheating done by either an individual acting alone or perhaps two students in concert. I have never heard of an organized scamming ring like the one uncovered this week, nor have any of the other tutors with whom I've spoken.

4 people like this
Posted by Peter Baum
a resident of another community
on Mar 16, 2019 at 11:55 pm

@ 2eparent

Thank you for your comment--I appreciate your taking the time.

1) My experience seems consistent with the data you provided. Without trying to do a weighted average of the sizes of various communities, if 0% of students in Ceres receive accommodations and 20% of students in Palo Alto do (just to be clear, I do not know what the PAUSD number is), you can arrive at the 5% number you're talking about.

2) Your point about schools attracting schools with certain types of students is a point well taken. The school in question was not such a school.

3) I really want to focus on your central objection--namely, my implied assertion that the system is being gamed sometimes. I do in fact believe this to be the case. Do you believe the system is never being gamed? At the same time, I absolutely do believe that testing accommodations are a valid and legitimate tool in some circumstances. I have not and do not purport to be an expert on learning differences and who specifically should qualify for what accommodation. I'm simply saying that either the bar should be tightened or that the advantage gain from said accommodation (especially for a student whose learning difference is much slighter) would be negated. In terms of the administration of the test, each section is separately timed. Therefore, even if the sections were made longer, there wouldn't be students finishing and wanting to leave much earlier than the others. They'd simply be waiting a bit before their next section began. As someone who has sat in the room dozens of times taking these tests, I feel confident that the students who finished early would simply put their heads down and wait for the nest section to begin.

14 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 18, 2019 at 2:35 am

Agree with Free PR’s posting: “Way to market yourself dude!!”

I spoke with Peter Baum 8 years ago and his hourly fee was $200/hour for SAT tutoring. He also claimed he wrote the SAT tutoring guides for AJ Tutoring, the company which charges $120/hour for SAT tutoring. Yes, the rich do have privileges.

This whole college application process is a game and there are plenty Elizabeth Warrens out there who claim they are a certain ethnicity to gain an advantage. There’s so many ways to cheat on applications. Colleges should hire more admissions employees to verify data.

The U.S. News and World Reports college rankings should be abolished too but the colleges are probably paying them off.

7 people like this
Posted by Parent of Student who NEEDS Accomodations
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 18, 2019 at 12:16 pm

Parent of Student who NEEDS Accomodations is a registered user.

There may be some parents gaming the system, but I will tell you that kids who need accommodations cannot afford to do without them.

The tests should be longer for everyone so that no one is disadvantaged, but that would cost the College Board money...and the College Board is ALL ABOUT making money.

9 people like this
Posted by bill1940
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 18, 2019 at 1:28 pm

Eliminate the SAT's. My feeling is that as long as tutoring is permitted, and for the most part, this costs significant dollars, then the SAT's are worthless with respect to a "level playing field" admission criteria. Several private universities have already done so, e. g., Cornell, Lewis and Clark, and NYU.

I do note that none of the Stanford students involved in this SCAM were in the end admitted. Also, all students admitted to Stanford whose parents earn less than $125,000/year do not pay tuition.

5 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Mar 18, 2019 at 1:49 pm

pearl is a registered user.

An excellent book addressing this topic:

Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be - An Antidote To The College Admissions Mania, by Frank Bruni

25 people like this
Posted by Major Pence USMC (ret.)
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 18, 2019 at 1:52 pm

One solution. Join the armed forces first...Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force or Coast Guard (optional choices). Take some time to grow-up first.

Two years of mandatory military service prior to entering college should be requisite.

Acquire some discipline & a sense of order. Learn responsibility & perhaps an alternative trade in addition to mastering firearm safety & proficiency.

This will also instill an early sense of maturity & if there happens to be another war, they will grow up even faster & be prepared for dealing with life & death matters.

Then at 20, embark on the college experience if desired.

For many, going to college is just another sandbox to play in. Learn how to 'hit the beaches' first if you want some real sand.

3 people like this
Posted by screed
a resident of Stanford
on Mar 18, 2019 at 3:51 pm

The problem is everyone thinks they (or their children) deserve to get into Stanford...or Berkeley, or Yale, or Harvard, etc.

But Stanford only has 1,800 slots each year (not 18,000. 1,800!) Beyond the 12,000 who actually apply there are probably 1 million or more worldwide who have what it takes to attend. They can't all fit onto the campus. So what to do?

18 people like this
Posted by Sgt. 1st Class Jessup (ret.)
a resident of another community
on Mar 18, 2019 at 6:04 pm

Major Pence,

I suspect that certain coddled Millennials would want 'participation awards' just for carrying out basic duties like making their beds & being presentable at inspection. Blame their parents who never served unless self-serving counts.

And in a time of war, you want working-class enlistees to carry out the missions...not individuals who are serving begrudgingly. We learned that in Viet Nam as a sizable number of disgrunted draftees were essentially useless potheads.

The National Guard might be a better alternative. Then these kids could play 'weekend warrior' & fullfill this requirement you have proposed. Anyone who has seen the first Rambo flick will understand that these National Guardsmen are not to be relied upon for anything serious in nature.

In the armed forces, we want real men & real women with a sense of duty & committment...not a bunch of spoiled middle-class kids who would rather be goofing-off somewhere. As aforementioned, we saw what happened in Nam, which in many ways led to the dissolution of the draft.

8-ball individuals make 8-ball servicemen & not surprisingly, women make better soldiers & sailors than most males...with far fewer disciplinary problems.

5 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Mar 18, 2019 at 8:18 pm

pearl is a registered user.

MAJ Pence & SFC Jessup:

Thank you for your valuable input. I, too, believe a mandatory two-year stint in the military before entering college would be a good thing for the reasons you have mentioned, though, sadly, I don't hold out much hope of that ever coming about.


2 people like this
Posted by Stolie
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 20, 2019 at 3:37 pm

All the elites who have commented should recuse themselves from comment. The bottom line here is, money talks and always follow the money! Lets face it, schools for the poor do not exists. Places like Stanford have a few token in their athletic programs, some who have student loans that should be co-signed by the college, and then the elites who pay to get their A.D.D. darling into a dorm!

2 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Apr 4, 2019 at 3:14 pm

pearl is a registered user.

Another book addressing this topic:

The Price of Admission - How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges-And Who Gets Left Outside The Gates, by Daniel Golden

3 people like this
Posted by member1
a resident of another community
on Apr 4, 2019 at 7:04 pm

member1 is a registered user.

Just curious if most people use the school counselors or trust them. Pretty interesting to see which colleges they suggest to certain students. Do they have quotas to fill with expensive liberal arts colleges?

5 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Apr 4, 2019 at 9:02 pm

pearl is a registered user.


Your questions are answered in Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be - An Antidote To The College Admissions Mania, by Frank Bruni, and, The Price of Admission - How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges-And Who Gets Left Outside The Gates, by Daniel Golden.


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