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By now, you’ve all seen the headlines.

By now, you’ve likely shaken your head in disbelief, or maybe struck a desk in anger.

On Tuesday, March 12, at least 50 people were charged in what is being described as the biggest college admissions scandal ever prosecuted by federal authorities, according to reporting in just about every major news outlet.

I watched this afternoon as a few high school students read the LA Times’ clear, concise reporting on this story. As pages turned and pencils underlined text, I could tell that the students were getting angrier and angrier.

“Every paragraph… just gets worse,” a talented senior said, tearing at the corners of her photocopy.

Maybe she was describing the half million parents spent to reserve spots on USC’s crew team for students who had never rowed in a race.

Maybe it was the parents who had their children “purport to have learning disabilities” so they could obtain medical documentation, then fly to test centers where expert test-takers would doctor their exams.

Or the pay-to-play cheating— anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million that parents invested in bribes to coaches, alterations to test scores, online classes, and other dishonest strategies— that an admissions consultant was able to disguise as charitable donations so parents could write off their contributions.

My student was right. The more you read, the picture gets bleaker.


Many of us are shaking our heads because we don’t know how to fix this. The problem feels huge, systemic, and complex.

But maybe there is one small place we can start. One stance we can make— one that a small education services company in Delaware has been taking, fiercely, for over 30 years.

At Back to Basics, we’ve looked at the marketing strategies for many of our peers, and we’ve discovered there’s a trend: Lots of tutoring services offer guarantees.

  • “We guarantee an increase of at least 270 points or 1500 total score, or more!”
  • “If your child completes our program and doesn’t improve by at least 150 points, we’ll provide you with additional tutoring for free!”
  • “We guarantee your score will increase by at least 160 SAT points or 4 ACT points on the real test!”
  • “If your child does not increase their SAT score by 200 points, you get your money back.”

Guarantee. Interestingly, that’s a word we’re reading in the criminal complaint that’s making headlines this week. William Singer, the founder of a college-prep business who authorities say was the architect of the criminal scheme, described to how his guarantee worked to one parent:

“My families want a guarantee. So, if you said to me ‘here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done… And you make a financial commitment. It depends on what school you want, may determine how much that actually is. But that’s kind of how the side and back door work.”

At Back to Basics, our staff wonders how our peers can honestly guarantee higher scores. Can they also guarantee that the child will get enough rest the night before? Can they determine whether the student will choose to do the work or attend a party the night before a big test? Can they guarantee that students won’t be stressed out or worried about a friend? All of these factors— which are part of life and growing up— might impact scores or performance. Recognizing that our students are complicated, growing, and authentic young people helps us to keep the concept of a ‘guarantee’ in perspective.

At Back to Basics, the only guarantee we make— the only guarantee we will ever make— is that we will establish a match between your child and the tutor. We know that students learn best when they can establish genuine relationships, and so we customize how we match each student to their tutor based on learning styles and specific educational needs.

We’ll guarantee those positive and supportive relationships. We’ll do our very best to make learning convenient, and to collaborate with schools, teachers, and parents to support each student with individual strategies. We’ll challenge students to do their best, and celebrate with them when they make strides.

But we won’t promise straight-A’s, spikes in test scores, or college acceptance.

Each student is unique, and success looks different for everyone we support. When a student grins with confidence as he completes a problem set, gains self-esteem through establishing good study habits, or develops a love of learning, we know that these positive steps are priceless. Take enough of these steps in the right direction, guided by the sort of support and challenge that is inherently part of 1-on-1 learning, and our students don’t need guarantees. They are ready to succeed in any direction their roads lead.

Over thirty years of experience has taught us that there are no back doors or side doors to changing lives for the better.

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