The outrageously expensive world of college counseling services, explained

A view of people visiting the University of Southern California on March 12, 2019, in Los Angeles. Two USC athletic department employees were fired after being indicted for their alleged roles in a racketeering conspiracy.

Not all tactics parents use to send their kids to elite colleges are illegal.

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced charges against 50 people, including a handful of famous actors, for allegedly participating in an elaborate scheme to get their children into top colleges. According to court documents, the parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars — and in some cases, more than a million — to fake their children’s SAT and ACT scores, help them pose as successful athletes, and generally fudge their applications so they’d get into schools of their choice.

As Vox’s Jane Coaston wrote, there’s a simple explanation for the cheating scandal: The parents who were allegedly involved wanted to get their kids into the colleges of their choice, but their kids didn’t have what it takes to get there on their own. Another question, however, is why these parents may have turned to bribery and fraud when the wealthy have so many legal resources for padding their kids’ applications.

Parents who can drop a million or ten can donate to their child’s university of choice in an attempt to snag a position. Parents who have much less money to spare but still want to give their kids an edge over the competition can hire SAT and ACT tutors, as well as essay consultants who can help their kids write the kinds of essays admissions committees want to read. Then there’s an option that’s slightly more expensive than hiring a tutor but much cheaper than donating a new library: boutique college consulting services that help students craft every part of an application, for families with five or six figures to burn instead of seven.

There are thousands of private, for-profit college consulting firms that help students bring out their best selves in applications for a steep price. In 2018 alone, the education consulting industry pulled in an estimated $2 billion in revenue, according to the market research firm IBISWorld. Unlike bribing proctors to change your kid’s answers on the SAT, hiring a college consultant is completely legal — though it can be similarly expensive.

Private counselors help already privileged students highlight their best attributes in college applications

Top Tier Admissions, a Massachusettsbased college consulting firm, charges $18,000 for its four-day college application boot camp. “Students sign up their sophomore year and they get our guidance and counseling from sophomore year until they show up at our boot camp the summer before senior year,” Top Tier co-founder Mimi Doe told me. “And,” she added, “we have a waitlist.”

Doe wouldn’t tell me how much Top Tier charges for private counseling, but she did describe the process. “We work with students to find out what is their academic area of interest,” she said. “We say, ‘You don’t have to think about a career; let’s think about what do you love to learn about? What do you like to study?’”

One example: “We worked with one student who was interested in science, but he couldn’t articulate what [about it]. So like a good theater director helps an actor give a great performance without giving them a line reading, we helped him figure out, ‘Okay, I like the environment.’ This particular kid got very involved in solar energy. He made his high school the first carbon-neutral high school in America.”

Private coaching sessions also involve a lot of the more “mundane” work, as Doe put it, like helping students determine whether they should take the SAT or the ACT and what kinds of classes they should sign up for. The questions students ask, Doe said, are often, “Should I pick easy classes and get As or harder classes? What should I do with my summers? I’ve heard that I should go to Africa and help poor people — is that true?” Her job, she said, is “guiding students to make the decisions that are authentic for them, empowering them to see a world of opportunities that are beyond their own high school.”

IvyWise, another college coaching service, gave more specific prices. Initial consultations, which are 90 minutes long, start at $1,350. The median tuition for longer-term counseling services is $25,000, a spokesperson told me, though “that number can be somewhat meaningless, because there is such a range of programs.” An application review, for example, costs $3,000, while a comprehensive four-year training program, which includes counseling, tutoring, and college research can cost well into the six figures.

Both Doe and Christine Chu, a counselor at Ivy Wise who previously worked in admissions at Yale and Georgetown, told me that their job isn’t to make underqualified kids look qualified — it’s helping students present their best selves.

“When I was on admissions, I would say there are more ‘qualified’ students who we know can thrive and excel at this particular institution than there are spots in the freshman class,” Chu said. If there are more qualified students than there are acceptance letters, then it only makes sense that most of those letters will go to the students who can use the limited space they’re given in an application — a questionnaire, maybe a few essays — to create a portrait of their academic careers that appeals to an admissions agent’s sensibilities.

The rise of private coaching highlights — and can exacerbate — inequality in higher education

Private college coaches are like high school guidance counselors on steroids. They do some of the same work as guidance counselors — helping students identify which schools they should apply to, suggesting courses they could take — with one key difference. Private coaches work with just a handful of clients each year, meaning they can provide highly specialized, individually tailored services.

Guidance counselors work with an average of 482 students each year, according to a 2018 report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the American School Counselor Association. (And some states don’t even require schools to have guidance counselors.)

As Chu said, there are more qualified students than there are spaces available in the freshman classes at top universities. As a result, the students who are most likely to get in — in addition to recruited athletes and legacy admissions, which involve a whole other can of worms — may include those who get outside help with their applications. It’s unlikely that an 18-year-old high school senior (or even their parents) would know what a college admissions committee wants to read; by hiring a college counselor who previously worked in admissions at Harvard or Yale, that student automatically has yet another leg up over those who can’t afford to do so.

Wealthy students are already overrepresented at elite universities. In 2017, more than 29 percent of Harvard’s incoming freshman class was made up of legacy students — those who had a parent or grandparents who had also attended the university. That year, the New York Times reported that 38 colleges across the country had more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the bottom 60 percent.

Even if those students didn’t hire private coaches to help them get into college, they likely benefited from other academic privileges that come with money: well-funded schools, small class sizes, rigorous extracurricular activities, the ability to focus exclusively on school and not worry about money. Private coaching is just one of many advantages these students have over their nonwealthy peers.

Students who aren’t interested in (or can’t afford) private coaching sessions can get similar information for free on Top Tier’s blog, Doe told me, though it’s obviously not nearly as personalized. “In our private counseling, we each work with a very limited number of students, so that’s a very expensive opportunity because we just can’t spread ourselves any thinner.” IvyWise provides pro bono services to a select number of students every year. (More than 10 percent of clients are pro bono cases, Chu told me.)

It bears repeating that these services don’t help students game the system; if anything, they indicate that the system is rigged in favor of wealthy students in the first place. The best college counselors don’t help kids lie or stretch the truth on their applications. If the messaging of IvyWise and Top Tier is to believed, the purpose of these individual training programs isn’t just to get kids into college, it’s to help turn them into scholars. This is a luxury not always afforded to the average student at an underfunded public high school.

For those who can afford them, college counseling programs are a supplement to already excellent educations — something that is becoming increasingly elusive for middle- and lower-income students across the country, the very students who would most benefit from this kind of individualized attention.

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