Cashing In On Crimson

Angela N. Fu & Dianne Lee

November 16, 2017

Armed with over a decade of teaching experience and a desire to teach a variety of subjects, Dominique Padurano ’93 faced one last challenge—what to name her new tutoring company.

“I wanted to clearly capitalize on my connection with my alma mater,” Padurano says. She had once heard Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, say that companies with a hard “C” sound in their names tended to do well. Padurano settled on “Crimson Coaching.”

From the start, that nod to Harvard helped draw in clients. “I think that was what got me in the proverbial door,” Padurano says.

Indeed, the Harvard brand has overwhelming power—Padurano is not alone in trying to monetize its influence. Wander through Harvard Square and you’ll see dozens of businesses that deploy the University’s name. Crimson hoodies and t-shirts dominate storefronts. At the very heart of the Square, Harvard gear peeks out from the windows of Out of Town News. Across the street, a bold crimson sign indicates the Coop.

And rights to the name don’t come cheap: Companies pay through the nose for licenses to sell Harvard-branded clothing at stores like Forever 21 and Vineyard Vines.

Consumer goods aren’t the only products that benefit from being Harvard-branded. Crimson Coaching is one of many education-focused businesses that seek to take advantage of the unique power of the Harvard name. These organizations tend to offer similar services: international conferences, tutoring, or college application consulting.

The profits derived from the name can be huge. In a “non-exhaustive” list published by the University, Harvard has registered over 150 trademarks on everything from the Veritas shield to CS50. Royalties from Harvard-branded merchandise sales amount to around $500,000 a year.

As a result, the University carefully polices its brand. The Harvard Trademark Program licenses the University’s trademarks and investigates unauthorized use of the Harvard name. Within the College, the Office of Student Life places careful restrictions on how a student group can claim Harvard affiliation. Similar bodies exist for the University’s other schools.

“The law here is actually a little murky because in general, you do have the right to say true things,” says Rebecca L. Tushnet ’95, a Law School professor who specializes in trademark law. “But Harvard can get around your right to say true things by making it part of the deal—that if you want to be recognized by the University, and if you want access to these other campus resources, you have to agree to their guidelines for using the Harvard name.”

The result is a complicated relationship between organizations seeking Harvard affiliation and administrators seeking to protect the brand. Inside the University, groups acquiesce to Harvard’s demands in order to maintain access to the name. Outside, businesses toe the line, choosing words and imagery that evoke Harvard and the Ivy League without misusing the university’s numerous trademarks.

Regardless of official affiliation to the University, organizations ranging from nonprofit workshops to lucrative college consulting businesses leverage—and sometimes exploit—the Harvard brand to advance their interests.

Houman D. Harouni, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education, has received numerous invitations to speak at conferences around the world. He considers his popularity a testament to the power of the Harvard brand on the global stage.

“A lot of people, especially from international contexts, want to really get close to this name in one way or the other,” Harouni says. “If you’re Harvard faculty, you are constantly receiving invitations to come and speak or to come and teach or to come and do a project, and these rarely have much to do with your qualifications.”

The Harvard brand is especially valuable in Asia, where student groups find a lucrative market among high school students. Nearly a dozen student groups at Harvard offer educational conferences and workshops in China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and India, sometimes making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Bolstered by their affiliation to the University, many of these groups attract a sizeable client base from day one.

Harvard Model United Nations, for example, runs four-day United Nations conference simulations for high school students. While the main conference is hosted in Boston in January of each year, HMUN also hosts two international conferences annually in China and India.

This Harvard affiliation “100 percent” plays a role in drawing high school student participants to HMUN conferences, John D. Bowers ’18, Secretary-General of HMUN China, says. “The Harvard name is a huge part of why the conferences are so successful, at least initially.”

“The Harvard name has massive cachet internationally, probably even more than it does in the United States, so running a Harvard-sponsored conference kind of gives you a leg up over a lot of the competition because the name draws people in,” Bowers adds.

Qe Ti describes the Harvard name as a “quality warranty.” Ti is the chief operating officer and cofounder of Alpha Partners Education, the Beijing-based organization that helps organize HMUN China’s conference.

“In the eyes of Chinese parents and Chinese students, Harvard is the mecca of college, is the mecca of education, so the conference absolutely benefits from the name of Harvard,” Ti says.

Other organizations seek to emulate Harvard’s academic model, sustaining their conferences with their continued use of the Harvard brand. Groups such as the Harvard Vietnam International Educational Teach-In and the Harvard College Japan Initiative send dozens of undergraduates abroad to lead workshops and seminars.

“I think that overall, they all essentially stand for the main idea: bringing liberal arts to places that are not very familiar with the American model,” former HCJI president Deriam Chirinos ’17 says. “I think in that sense, all these programs are not really that different.”

Of these organizations, Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China is one of the largest and most established. Run by the Harvard Association for U.S.-China Relations, HSYLC operates three nine-day conferences each summer in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. Chinese high school students attend courses taught by Harvard undergraduates while participating in various extracurricular activities such as dance and sports.

HSYLC’s promotional materials heavily emphasize its connection to Harvard. In particular, it designs its services to resemble key aspects of student life at the College. The student seminars are “structured after Harvard College’s own Freshman Seminar Program,” the website boasts. The housing system is “modeled after Harvard College’s 12 world-renowned residential Houses,” offering students the “opportunity to experience what Harvard residential life is like.”

Many former participants say that HSYLC’s affiliation to Harvard drew their attention.

“I think that Harvard is one of the reasons I thought it was really interesting,” says Zhiye Yang ’21, a 2014 participant and contributing news writer to The Crimson. “The name Harvard is really influential in China.”

Hehe “Hannah” Shen ’19, a current HAUSCR board member who participated in HSYLC as a high school student, agrees. “The Harvard name definitely weighs a lot in this decision,” she says.

The trust in the Harvard name has translated to success for HSYLC. In 2017, more than 1000 Chinese high school students attended classes taught by about 100 Harvard undergraduates. HSYLC received more than $280,000 in revenue during the 2015 fiscal year, the most recent year for which public records are available.

HSYLC has also seen its own reputation and brand power grow over the past few years. “HSYLC was the first conference of its kind to hit China. That means it has the traction and the reputation of over a decade’s operation in China,” co-director of HAUSCR Melissa Li ’19 says. “We like to say more people in China know about HSYLC than they know about Yale.”

Bowers says the same trend held for HMUN. While the Harvard name may have helped establish HMUN initially, its continued success drew mainly on the reputation the conference had built up over the years. In fiscal year 2015, Harvard Model United Nations programs made $760,043 in revenue.

On the global stage, Harvard’s presence is overwhelming, competing with only the largest universities such as Cambridge or Oxford for name recognition. Domestically, Harvard faces more competition from regional powerhouses and nationally-ranked schools like University of Southern California and Cornell.

Yet Harvard remains one of the most powerful brands in the nation. The Harvard Crimson, for example, runs several journalism conferences on campus, including the Summer Journalism Academy, promoting them as “a chance for students to work and learn alongside editors at The Crimson.”

According to Derek K. Choi ’18, the president of The Crimson, the newspaper is “committed to ensuring that all interested students can participate” and is consequently “proud to offer generous financial aid to students for whom the cost of attendance poses a financial challenge.”

The self-described “largest student-run company in the world,” Harvard Student Agencies, is another prime example of the Harvard brand’s power in the United States. HSA contains 14 agencies, which sell products and services from custom apparel to dry cleaning to translation.

One of these agencies benefits particularly from Harvard’s association with high-quality education: HSA Tutoring, which offers a constellation of services like test preparation, academic workshops, and the Summer Business Academy, a week-long entrepreneurship course for high school students.

Each of these educational services touts a Harvard affiliation.

“Having a staff of tutors who are all Harvard students is definitely attractive to parents and high school students,” HSA president Angelina R. Massa ’18 says. “They’re looking to fill the same shoes Harvard students who are tutoring them have done.”

Andrew Fu, a sophomore at Babson College who participated in HSA’s Summer Business Academy in 2015, says the Harvard brand drew him to the program. “Everything with Harvard on it, it has a standard of quality that I expect,” Fu says, “So I expected it to be pretty good, pretty well-run just because there’s the Harvard brand on it. So that drew me and I applied.”

However, Massa also says that HSA tries “not to push the Harvard name too much or at least too aggressively throughout the tutoring process.”

According to the HSA Tutoring website, private tutoring packages vary in price: The one-hour 1636 package costs $75, while the 20-hour Veritas package costs $995. Over the summer, HSA tutors were paid $20/hour, according to job postings publicized in College Facebook groups and over mailing lists. Harvard Student Agencies, a registered non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, made $1,870,888 total revenue in fiscal year 2016.

In its Form 990 from fiscal year 2016, HSA states that its mission is “to conduct business enterprises for the benefit of students of Harvard University who are in need of financial assistance to defray the the expenses of their education.” HSA aims to provide job opportunities for College students.

To become an HSA tutor, one simply has to fill out an online form that asks for a resume and relevant standardized test scores. According to Massa, HSA looks for “people who have tutored previously or at least done very well on their standardized tests.”

Beth A. Simpson ’99, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education, challenges the idea that students who have done well on their own standardized tests are prepared to tutor others. “Just because you experienced an assessment doesn’t mean you know how to compose one,” Simpson says.

“I think that undermines everything about effective teaching,” Simpson says, “Which is that effective teaching involves a certain set of technical skills.”

According to Massa, after tutors have been selected, they undergo training. However, several HSA tutors say the training may not be sufficient. Based on her experience, Grace C. Eysenbach ’20, a former HSA tutor who taught 9th grade physics and computer skills part-time over the summer, said that HSA’s training process for tutors was only about an hour long. The trainings focused more on HSA tutoring policies rather than instruction on how to teach specific subjects.

“I’d say there’s definitely a lot of trust put in you as a tutor in that all they give you is an hour training, so they’re counting on you to be prepared when you show up to tutor this person,” Eysenbach says. “I think on the other end, there’s the risk of people half-assing it, but through the process, maybe using the Harvard name for the wrong reasons to validate something they’re not exactly backing up with their own actions.”

Joan Rooney, Vice President for Tutor Management and Support at The Princeton Review, emphasizes the importance of making sure tutors are trained to teach. She says that applicants for Princeton’s On Demand Tutoring, a 24/7 online homework help service, complete a one-hour mock teaching session and a qualifications check.

After tutors are selected, they remain on probation for up to 60 days, during which time they are assigned a mentor who has “expertise in online tutoring” with The Princeton Review who observes their work and provides feedback. Even after the probationary period, mentors continue to check in with tutors, only less frequently.

“It’s important to make sure that people delivering the tutoring are using some pedagogical skills and techniques,” Rooney says.

While Massa says she couldn’t disclose specific details on HSA’s training process because “tutoring is such a competitive business,” she describes it as “rigorous.”

“We do have many different services, and we have set ways that we’ve worked with advisors to develop to make sure that all of our tutors are up to par,” Massa says. She adds that after each program they run, HSA collects feedback to pass on to their tutors.

According to Rameen A. Rana ’20, Managing Director of HSA Tutoring, the company’s main competitors include Kaplan, Signet Education, Cambridge Coaching, and The Princeton Review.

“To come up with the pricing for our tutoring packages, we make sure we can cover our costs and then always assure that they are significantly lower than our main competitors,” Rana writes in an emailed statement. “We often also provide free trials to customers who would like to learn more about HSA Tutoring before they purchase a package.”

According to Rooney, The Princeton Review charges $39.99 for its one-hour On Demand Tutoring package, which focuses on general academic help. The Princeton Review does charge higher prices for its standardized testing tutoring packages.

Compared to some other student-run tutoring agencies, HSA charges more for its services. Student Tutor, a company that hires college students and recent graduates as tutors, charges up to $55 an hour for academic tutoring and up to $60 an hour for standardized test prep, compared to HSA’s $75 one-hour tutoring package.

Rooney says she thinks Ivy League branding “definitely” helps tutoring companies attract business.

“The Harvard brand is certainly a powerful brand as is The Princeton Review brand,” Rooney says. “I think those are helpful brands for families when they’re thinking about what kind of tutor they would like to hire.”

Various companies attract customers not only with the possibility of Ivy League grades, but also with admission into Ivy League schools.

The Crimson, for example, sells a college essay book entitled, “50 Successful Harvard Application Essays: What Worked for Them Can Help You Get into the College of Your Choice.”

In an emailed statement, Choi writes, “The Crimson’s Journalism Conferences and books are designed to serve our educational mission of helping to train the next generation of student journalists.”

Those who are admitted to Harvard often feel the pull of the brand first-hand.

For Jordan O. Johnson ’21, getting into Harvard didn’t just mean an acceptance letter in the mail and a free t-shirt from the Coop. Her acceptance also brought 400 new Instagram followers.

“People who would never be interested in meeting with me, learning more about me, are suddenly very, very interested,” Johnson says. “And I’m telling you it’s just because I got into Harvard.”

Inspired by the college admissions frenzy, Johnson started her own college consulting company, Ivy Grad Consulting, based in her hometown of Bethesda, Maryland.

“I was like, ‘What can I sell that’s cheap, and I can sell for a lot?’ and in my area, that ended up being college consulting,” Johnson says.

Johnson is not alone. The global fixation on admission into Harvard—and, more broadly, elite universities—inspires many entrepreneurs to launch college consulting companies for eager high school students engaged in the race for admission to selective colleges.

The result is a growing number of college consulting firms that reference elite schools in their titles. They boast names such as “Crimson Education,” “Harvard Square Consulting,” and “Ivy Coach.” Their websites often reference the Ivy League specifically. Words such as “selective” and “elite” are a common refrain. Some companies introduce prospective customers to their consultants, emphasizing their alma maters—a mix of the most selective universities in the world.

Pricing plans range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. One such college consulting firm, Ivy Edge, a North Carolina-based company founded by a Yale graduate, charges clients $10,000 for “The Comprehensive Plan.”

Johnson’s company, Ivy Grad Consulting, seeks to provide specific advice for students at select college preparatory schools. An hour’s worth of consultation costs $95. Johnson says she chose the name to highlight her qualifications and to strategically better reach her “target markets”: communities that have a culture focused on selective college admissions.

“Ivy and Harvard is a huge plus, and anything that has that attached to it is just automatically seen as better, even if it’s not necessarily so,” Johnson says. “So we just wanted to make sure we incorporated that into the core of our brand so that people in our area would definitely see it.”

Shortly after she launched Ivy Grad Consulting, other recent high school graduates reached out to Johnson, offering to consult for the company. Kahlil Greene, then a Yale-bound senior, sent his resume to Johnson. One reason she chose to hire him was that he attended a competitive, predominantly wealthy high school.

“We look at the school, the demographics of the school. Will the demographics of the school be able to support a service that averages $295 to $395 total?” Johnson says. “[Greene] came from a magnet school from a pretty affluent area that we felt like would be able to meet that demand.”

Ivy Grad Consulting includes specific packages that cater to students at Walt Whitman High School and Poolesville High School, two nationally ranked Maryland schools—and the schools that Johnson and Greene attended. According to Johnson, the culture at both Walt Whitman and Poolesville is highly centered on gaining admission to a selective college.

“Having that Ivy league cachet attached to you in any way is seen as successful, smart, pretty much unanimously positive attributes,” Johnson says. “So parents generally see it as a sign that you have made it.”

The company’s website claims it exclusively employs recent high school graduates who attend Ivy League schools because they “understand the intricacies of today’s admission game.”

Some criticize this logic.

“I don’t think that having attended an Ivy League makes you qualified to tell others how to apply to an Ivy League school or be accepted by an Ivy League school,” says Ann Rossbach, president of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a professional organization which represents over 1700 independent educational consultants. “So I feel that potential students or applicants are misled in a way if they’re brought in by a student who says they have the inside track on that process.”

Jeff Levy, a member of IECA, agrees. “Any educational consultants who say ‘I know the formula to get your child into Stanford or Harvard,’ anyone who says that is a huckster. They’re a used car salesman,” Levy says. “They’re not an educational consultant in the true sense of the word, and they certainly don’t have the student’s best interest at heart.”

Levy says that most consultants believe their industry should focus on matching students to the school that best fits their needs. Consequently, they regard companies invoking the Ivy League in their names as unethical.

“There’s a concerted effort to prevent consultants from using those types of names—Ivy this or Harvard that or Princeton this—in the name of their firms because it’s conveying absolutely the wrong message,” Levy says.

The IECA closely scrutinizes consultants who use the Ivy brand, according to Rossbach.

“If [the Ivy brand] pops up, we have a conversation with the person asking them why that’s there and asking them to remove it because it’s not really the focus we have in our organization at all,” Rossbach says.

Ivy Grad Consulting is not affiliated with the IECA.

Johnson thinks that her qualifications justify her business model. “I would say saying you got into multiple selective schools just speaks to the merit, in this case, of what we’re doing,” she says. “When you say you got into multiple schools with a sub 6 or 5 percent acceptance rate, I think that does encourage people to buy your service.”

She admits that her company may contribute to the culture of obsession over Ivy League admissions “to a certain extent,” but that larger companies deserve a greater portion of the blame.

“I think that even if it weren’t my company, it would be pretty much any other company,” Johnson says. “I’m definitely not the only one. So it’s the big companies that I think are really contributing to it.”

Henry Moodie knows a thing or two about branding.

A few years ago, the Extension School student launched Harvard HELLO (Harvard Extension Leadership Learning Organization), a student club that sold leadership workshops held in various campus facilities.

Seeking recognition as an approved student organization, Moodie sent administrators an email with the link to his new club. However, according to Moodie, Extension School administrators clicked and approved the wrong link. Believing that they had been approved, Harvard HELLO continued its operations. Then, Moodie was confronted by the Trademark Program. “Harvard was coming down on us like a ton of bricks,” Moodie says. “We were totally blindsided by this.”

When asked about the incident, the Trademark Program said that it did not comment on individual cases.

Moodie and collaborators were told to suspend club activities. They decided to drop the venture.

Undeterred, Moodie launched Data Grad, a service that connected data science students with employers. Unfortunately, he reflects, the organization “didn’t really gain very much traction.”

Finally, Moodie turned his focus back to Ivy League schools and other elite colleges.

His newest venture, Ivy Grad, connects student “consultants” at elite universities with short-term job opportunities offered by various employers, Moodie’s “clients.” Moodie says he selected Ivy League students as his consultant base because their alma mater “prequalified” them.

“The advantage with the Ivy League schools is that the student body has been verified through the admissions process that they are skilled, competent, they work hard,” Moodie says. He named his business Ivy Grad in order to take advantage of the “preconceived ideas that people have of what it means to be in the Ivy League.”

“We run a business and we try to obviously leverage as much of the advantages that we can leverage,” he says. “If a client is sitting where the decision is two candidates on their desk, you know, they most probably would take more interest… in the Ivy Grad.”

According to Moodie, Ivy Grad currently has about 20 clients, most of whom are hiring managers he knows personally. According to anonymous testimonials visible on Ivy Grad’s website as of October 25, these clients are satisfied with the service, calling the company their “Consulting Uber.”

Ivy Grad’s website featured images of four people labeled with what Moodie says are the names of his student consultants. When asked about the images, he clarified that although the names were correct, the pictures were stock images because the consultants wished to remain anonymous. Later, the names were removed.

Still in its beginning stages, Ivy Grad capitalizes on the power of the Ivy League brand like many of its more established peers. Drawing on the academic legacy provoked by the name, these education-related organizations leverage the Harvard brand in order to achieve their goals, whether those be to host international conferences, promote tutoring or college consulting practices, or to connect college students with career opportunities.

Moodie defends his use of the Ivy League brand5t. “I don’t think that focusing on the Ivy Grad brand is a problem,” he says. “It’s my unique, you know, selling point.”

If Ivy Grad does well, Moodie says, he will expand.