news·3 min read

Sweet 1600: The Business of Getting into College

Business of Getting into College
Aug 12, 2019
The Business of Getting into College

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The Story

Students across the country are preparing to fill out their college applications. But before they can do that, students will have to get the right scores. A lot of them probably invested a lot of money into test prep programs for the SAT and ACT – test prep is a billion-dollar industry

Let’s go back, back to the beginning. 

The first standardized college admission tests were offered back in 1901, when a dozen university presidents decided to streamline the college admissions process. In the years that followed, IQ tests became a thing, which became the precursor to the Scholastic Aptitude Test: the SAT. The test was supposed to measure students’ natural abilities – not just what they learned in school.

So you couldn’t game the system.

Exactly. But then a guy named Stanley H. Kaplan said: “hold my drink.” He was super smart and had recently started his own tutoring company. When he heard about the SAT, he called it “love at first sight.” The test was all about problem-solving and thinking skills – and Kaplan knew he could teach that stuff. 

And could he?

He came up with a bunch of strategies to crack the test. He bragged that his students could improve their scores by 100 points; the Federal Trade Commission said: ‘try closer to 25 points’. But that was still a big deal. 

Big enough deal that people were willing to pay for it. 

Yep. And over the years, they’ve paid more and more. Nowadays: these programs can cost anywhere from a few hundred bucks for an online course… to thousands for an in-person course. Private tutors – like Kaplan used to be – now charge hundreds per hour. Like we said: test prep is a billion dollar industry. 

I bet some parents get sticker shock.

It hurts some more than others. And income and race have been shown to play a huge role in SAT outcomes: students from wealthy families tend to score higher, and Asian and white students tend to score better than black and Hispanic students. If colleges are paying attention to SAT scores, then these performance gaps might lead to admission gaps, too. College Board has tried to close the gaps by offering free test prep, and creating an adversity score to help colleges understand a student’s background. Some colleges have even stopped requiring the SAT in applications altogether. 


Yeah… but some people are still trying to game the system. You might have heard about Operation Varsity Blues – an FBI sting that lead to charges against dozens of people, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. Parents paid thousands to millions of dollars to either have their child’s SAT scores changed or to have a coach recruit their child to an athletic team. 


The college admissions process is stressful for millions of high school students across the country and around the world. But the stress isn’t just about getting the grades to get admitted to the college of their dreams – it’s also about finding a way to pay for all the costs along the way. The hope that a good SAT or ACT score will get you in fuels a prep industry that’s now worth a billion dollars.

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