While legacy and athlete admissions dominate popular discourse on inequalities in college admissions — especially thanks to the Rick Singer scandal — some “back doors” are more hidden. We often think of “back doors” in the context of generous donations that increase a student’s chance of admission. But there are other “back doors,” like access to competitive public schools and the ability to attend private high schools, that are perhaps the most important factors in securing a student’s spot at an “elite” institution. Wealthy families tend to live in wealthy areas, which in turn pours more money into public high schools in those districts. Take Henry M. Gunn High School (Gunn) and Palo Alto High School (Paly), the only two public high schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District in Palo Alto, California. Ranked as two of the best public high schools in California, students at Gunn graduate at a rate of 96%, with an average score of 1410 on their SAT or 32 on their ACT. Similarly, at Paly students graduate at a rate of 95%, get an average 1380 on their SAT and 31 on their ACT. California’s statewide high school graduation rate is 84.3%, over 10% lower than that of both Gunn and Paly. Students also score much lower on standardized tests, with a state average of 1053 on the SAT and 21.41 on the ACT. Students at these Palo Alto public schools perform better — and all for the low, low median housing cost of $3,700,000. Money — and lots of it — grants families access to some of the best public schools in their state.
Private high schools in the same area outperform even these competitive public schools. While Gunn and Paly are two of the best public high schools in California, private schools like Castilleja, Crystal Springs Uplands School and The Nueva School are all based in Silicon Valley and rank in the top-20 high schools in the United States. Students at Castilleja have an average ACT score of 33, and those at Nueva and Crystal Springs have average scores of 34, with similar SAT scores across the board. The average ACT score of a Stanford student falls between 32 and 35, a number consistent with the scores at similar universities, so this bump in score from the Palo Alto public schools to private schools could make a significant difference in a student’s college admissions decision.
These test scores are likely influenced by the fact that private school students can take these tests with as much paid preparation as they need. And this correlation between income and standardized test scores has not gone unnoticed by those who administer them. Expensive test-prep services — like BodSat in the Bay Area, which promises to raise its students’ scores “42% of the points remaining to a perfect score” — can cost upward of $150 an hour. And they specifically reach out to private schools: BodSat partners with both Crystal Springs Uplands School and The Nueva School to administer free ACT and SAT diagnostic tests, give presentations to help students better understand these tests and work with teachers to prepare curriculums that align with these tests. In 2016, ACT reported that students of parents who earn $80,000 or higher score a 23.6 on average, while their counterparts whose parents earn less typically score a 19.5 — and the gap is widening. Palo Alto’s median household income falls at $158,271, almost exactly double the figure the ACT used. Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier wrote that, “The SAT is … a wealth test,” and journalist Peter Sacks joked that one could easily guess a student’s standardized test score “by looking at how many degrees her parents have and … what kind of car they drive.” It’s simple: more money almost always ensures a better score.
Another perk private schools promise their families is access to specialized attention from college counselors. Paly and Crystal Springs both have three college counselors— notwithstanding the fact that Paly has over 2,000 9-12th grade students, while Crystal only has 350. Gunn, also in the Palo Alto school district, has eight guidance counselors for 1,908 students, but Crystal Springs still beats them out in terms of counselor-to-student-ratio. This higher counselor-to-student ratio makes the college process easier on the students’ end by ensuring each student has better access to expert advice and elite connections. Take Brad Ward, former college counselor at Menlo Park’s the Menlo School, who said she’d often think along the lines of, “Maybe I should call Dartmouth again because I haven’t called them in two weeks.” And this works. In her hit-piece on private high schools, Caitlin Flanagan concedes that, while private schools are a gross display of excess wealth and privilege, they succeed at sending their students to prestigious colleges. “Less than 2% of the nation’s students attend so-called independent schools,” she says, “but 24% of Yale’s class of 2024 attended an independent school. At Princeton, that figure is 25%. At Brown and Dartmouth, higher still: 29%.” For Stanford’s class of 2025, that figure is 27%. And these figures are not evenly distributed among U.S. private schools. Back to the Bay Area, Crystal Springs Uplands School sent seven out of around 90 seniors to Stanford in the 2020-2021 admissions year alone.
Private schools seem like the perfect place, then, for high-achieving students. The catch? The price tag. Tuition for these Palo Alto private schools, before financial aid, can reach $54,445 a year. If you’re willing to pay, these schools will grant you an “in” to elite universities that even high-performing public schools can fail to give. And it was these types of schools that Singer targeted. Legally, the process parents and students underwent with Singer was different from the other “back doors” into college admissions. But morally, where do we draw the line between paying $15,000 to have someone take the SAT for your kid, and paying $150 an hour for countless ACT tutoring sessions? Or paying $50,000 a year so your kid can attend a private school that prepares them to be the perfect college applicant? Rick Singer’s “side door” is not new — it merely tested, and found, the limits of the preexisting “back doors.”