Can Caltech Make New Entrance Standards Work?

Can Caltech Make New Entrance Standards Work?

A student works with a math tutor in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on May 12, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

John Seiler

John Seiler


Updated: 9/13/2023


Caltech is one of the world’s premier scientific and technical institutes. Its full name is the California Institute of Technology. Starting with fall 2024 applicants, it’s going to allow an alternative system for high school students to meet its rigorous science and math entrance standards, such as taking Khan Academy courses.
Consider me skeptical. But here’s what Jared R. Leadbetter, professor of environmental microbiology and chair of the first-year admissions committee, explained in a statement: “Our goal in admissions is to make barriers to access as low as possible for talented STEM students. The Caltech faculty recognize that one or more of the STEM courses that we require for admission may not be available to all students. The new policy aims to provide an avenue for such students to fill that gap in formal coursework by engaging in effective independent study of the relevant subject material.”
The statement noted some science and math courses are not offered in all high schools, especially in rural areas with small school districts: “To address these disparities, Caltech is piloting a new program with Khan Academy and to offer free online courses, tutoring, and a certification process for potential applicants. The certification process allows students who do not have access to these courses or who have unresolvable course conflicts to take calculus, chemistry, and physics classes through Khan Academy. These students may then submit an examination score through that is at or above 90 percent to meet the course requirement. Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam scores may also be submitted to meet the requirements for application.”
Since they started in 2006, I’ve checked out the Khan Academy courses and they are excellent, and free. Anybody can take them. They indeed are a true innovation for this digital age. The certification makes sure the kids know their stuff. Presumably, anyone cheating would be found out upon entering Caltech because they would be unable to do the course work.

Affirmative Action Workarounds

But here’s something worrying from the statement: “Other adjustments include new short-essay questions and added guidelines regarding the ethical use of artificial intelligence (AI) in applications.” The problem is these essay questions could be used to rig the system to get around the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision banning affirmative action.
As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, “At the same time, nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.” But “universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”
We’ll see how that works out. In California, universities already have been using workarounds after affirmative action was banned by Proposition 209 from 1996.
Right after the June court decision, UCLA explained in a statement, “How UCLA has responded to Proposition 209”: “In 2006, the UCLA Academic Senate approved a holistic model for freshman admissions in which each application would be read and considered in its entirety rather than having sections reviewed by different people. Proponents of the new approach, which does not consider race and other factors that are prohibited by Proposition 209, believed the more individualized and qualitative assessment of each applicant’s entire application would be the fairest and most effective method of providing access to all underrepresented applicants. The strategy was already being employed by UC Berkeley. ...
“Some measures were structured to strengthen equity and diversity on the campus itself, among them, the creation of a vice chancellor position to oversee equity, diversity and inclusion efforts, and new diversity officer positions. UCLA also established a Black Bruin Resource Center in the center of campus to offer programing and services to anyone interested in Black life; embarked upon a five-year plan to hire faculty whose work relates to Black experience; and created a new position for a staff member to maximize philanthropic support for Black life, teaching and research.”
Basically, the school took the bureaucratic approach and just created more high-salary administrative positions, paid for by the students’ tuition and the taxpayers.
At least Caltech didn’t go the way of the University of California in 2020, when it dumbed down its math requirement—but this past June apparently reversed itself. EdSource reported, “UC committee changes admission standard for data science, causing confusion over math framework: Taking data science won’t replace Algebra II and qualify as advanced math.”

Dumbed-Down High Schools

We need to look beyond Caltech’s action to the real problem, at least here in California. As I wrote in July in The Epoch Times, “California Education Board Dumbs Down Math Instruction.” How are kids supposed to meet Caltech’s tough entrance requirements if they’re not pushed to achieve in K-12 state schools? Are they supposed to take Khan Academy courses? Then why are they even going to school? Why are taxpayers now footing the bill for average spending of more than $20,000 per student without a demand for excellence?
And as I detailed in my article, China and India now are graduating four times the engineering students as America, and Russia twice as many. How are we supposed to compete when our high schools don’t teach STEM courses adequately and universities reduce standards?
Finally, it’s interesting Caltech’s statement said the school “added guidelines regarding the ethical use of artificial intelligence (AI) in applications.” Kids these days are using AI for everything. Is it OK to use AI to research, but not to write the application? How will the school make sure the applications are organic?
Appropriately, Caltech’s Center for Technology & Management Education offers an online “AI & Machine Learning Bootcamp. Accelerate your career with our AI and Machine Learning Bootcamp. Master skills such as ML, deep learning, NLP, computer vision, reinforcement learning, generative AI, prompt engineering, ChatGPT, and more.”
Maybe soon AI will replace both teachers and students.
John Seiler

John Seiler


John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. Mr. Seiler has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary for California state Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at and his email is

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