Elite college counseling: A legal, prohibitively expensive pay-to-win game in admissions

Stella Pagkas

August 10, 2019

The infamous college admissions scandal that unfolded this year left students facing expulsion from top universities as their parents suffered legal consequences. Ongoing revelations have drawn a media spotlight and garnered international attention.

Every year, however — and with far less fanfare — students’ families pay hundreds or thousands of dollars an hour for completely legal college counseling, and with it, offers of virtually guaranteed college admission.

Stanford admitted 4.4% of applicants for the class of 2022, and Harvard admitted 4.7%, but companies like Ivy Coach and Top Tier Admissions promise clients a much better shot at emerging victorious from increasingly large college applicant pools.

Ivy Coach reports that — in the 2018-19 school year — “92% of students who worked with [Ivy Coach] on 3 schools or more earned admission to their top college choice.” Another company, Top Tier Admissions, states that five of its counsellors have collectively “worked with over 3,000 students from more than 18 countries for the past twenty years,” and that “95% of their students get into their 1st or 2nd choice college.”

The help that students receive is comprehensive. Top Tier Admissions begins working with students as early as middle school, helping them “with everything from planning out a testing strategy to course selection, summer planning, study help, application strategy and anything that comes up during our time together,” wrote company founder Mimi Doe in an email to The Daily.

According to its website, Ivy Coach helps students “discover their intellectual interests,” “shape their extracurricular activities to hone their passions” and ultimately “develop an academic and extracurricular strategy that will make your child as competitive as can be.”

These services could benefit any college applicant, but their steep prices make them — and their lofty guarantees — cost-prohibitive for the vast majority of applicants.

“The pathway to working with Ivy Coach is through a one-hour evaluation for $1,750,” wrote company rep Ashley Stevens in an email to The Daily. 

A two-hour session of Common Application tutoring with Top Tier Admissions is priced at $1,200, and that is just the beginning. Many affluent families opt for even more extensive assistance from these companies, and the higher prices that come with it. Ivy Coach filed a lawsuit against a Vietnamese woman in 2018 because she had failed to pay the full $1.5 million she owed the company for its help with her daughter’s college and boarding school applications.

In light of these counseling services and the recent scandal, critics and watchdogs have raised concerns that admission is reserved for the wealthy, with merit no longer being a factor. However, university admissions offices stress that this is not the case.

“Participation in [a college counseling] program does not ‘guarantee’ admission to Stanford,” wrote University spokesperson E.J. Miranda.

In fact, 17.5% of Stanford’s class of 2022 are first-generation college students, and the University reports that in the 2018-19 school year, 47% of students received need-based financial aid. Thus, a significant subset of Stanford students have likely lacked the resources to utilize elite college counseling in their own paths to admission.

“Stanford admits undergraduates through a holistic review,” Miranda wrote. “This means a review of the full set of qualifications and attributes each applicant brings, with a focus on academic excellence, intellectual vitality, extracurricular activity and personal context.”

Nevertheless, families continue to pay fortunes to college counseling companies in hopes of a significant boost to their students’ odds at reaching a top university. In comparison to the fraud and bribery that fueled Operation Varsity Blues — these companies and their clients stress that the services are legal and ethical.

“Given the recent scandal, I’d also add that we [at Top Tier Admissions] put ethics first and never write things FOR the student or do anything that is not above the board,” Doe wrote.