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Khan Academy CEO discusses the 'non-level playing field' amid the college admissions scandal

The expansive college cheating drama that has rocked elite schools around the country continues to unfold this week as the test-taker in the scandal appeared in court, pleading guilty to conspiracy charges. Mark Riddell is the 36-year old man who posed as wealthy high school students, taking tests on their behalf.

But Riddell is just one person in a larger scheme. Prosecutors allege more than 50 parents paid up to $25 million to middle-man, Rick Singer, to get their kids into elite colleges. Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were ensnared in the sting and the aftermath is sparking discussions about the opaque workings of admissions boards and shedding light on a flawed system that allowed people with money to break the rules.

Sal Khan, founder and CEO of the nonprofit educational platform Khan Academy, sat down with Yahoo Finance to discuss the scandal and the college prep in general.

The college admissions system “is kind of merit-based with a little bit of an asterisk next to it,” Khan told Yahoo Finance’s On The Move, noting that “as the whole world becomes more affluent, there's only a fixed amount of seats, and so there just becomes more demand for those seats.”

Mark Riddell departs federal court Friday, April 12, 2019, in Boston, after pleading guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

‘I don't think it's a fully level playing field yet’

According to Global Industry Analysts, the global private tutoring market is projected to reach $260.7 billion by 2024. But it takes money to hire private tutors who can easily charge $200 per hour. To level the playing field, Khan Academy’s free service provides lessons in K-12 subjects along with college test prep. The not-for-profit serves 17 million students every month with a mission to provide free, world-class education to anyone anywhere.

Khan said the President of the College Board, the company that created the SAT, reached out to him about collaborating on free SAT prep, saying that “there's been this reality around middle class, upper middle class, affluent children and their families being able to get expensive tutors to at least create the perception of a non-level playing field, and probably a reality.”

Statistics suggest the plan is working insofar as it reaches people who historically have been underrepresented in test prep programs.

“What if we work together to create the best test prep that happens to be free?” Khan asked. “And now we're seeing [Khan Academy] is being used by over 60% of test takers across all demographics. It’s disproportionately being used by African-American and Latino students. And so, I don't think it's a fully level playing field yet, but at least on the SAT dimension, I think it's a lot more of a level playing field.”

SAT test with pencil and mortar board graduation cap

‘An opportunity ... to think of alternative paths’

Another point discussed in the wake of the admissions scandal is the idea of traditional educational frameworks themselves and whether or not the cost of a college degree is worth it. Khan noted there are multiple paths to achieving an education “where you don't have to go $200,000 in debt.”

One idea that would require buy-in from future employers is the notion that not everyone needs a four-year college degree.

“I do think there's an opportunity — especially working with major employers — to think of alternative paths,” Khan said. “Is there a way to create a credential that's recognized anywhere in the world with multiple levels that is, in some ways, a better read of what you're capable of not just academically, but how you work with others and your communication skills.”

Despite the wake of remorseful parents, devastated kids, and humiliated colleges, one good thing to come from the recent scandal is that it’s cracked open a discussion about the inequities of the college application process. And Khan said parents who pay big bucks for test prep or to cheat the system are not only missing the point, they’re not doing right by their kids.

“It's really not just about the test,” he said, “it's about becoming actually college ready.”

Yvette is a producer for Yahoo Finance’s On The Move.

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