‘Gray Area’: College Admissions and the Private Counseling Machine

Xavier Blackwell-Lipkind

April 30, 2021

In the wake of the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, what role should private college consulting companies play in the admissions process? The answer is complicated.

When Logan Roberts ’23 told a teacher he was considering applying to Yale, she replied with three words: “Oh, that’s sweet.”

Roberts grew up in Groton, New York, a small town northeast of Ithaca, and attended a Title I school where the vast majority of students received free lunch.

“I’ve lived in Groton my whole life,” he said. “Toward the beginning of high school, I sort of knew that I wanted to go to a place like Yale, but no one at my school had really ever done that before.” Yale was always “in the back of my mind … as a far-fetched dream,” Roberts continued. “But I didn’t know if it would ever happen.”

During his first year of high school, Roberts joined Upward Bound, a program designed to prepare first-generation, low-income, or FGLI, students for postsecondary education. Upward Bound “gave me the wherewithal to push through the high school process and to convince myself that I was even worthy of applying to a place like Yale,” he said.

He did not tell his parents he had applied to Yale until he had already submitted his application. “A lot of students … have their parents proofread their essays,” he said. That wasn’t the case for him. When I asked him whether he hired a private college admissions consultant, he smiled. “No,” he said. “No private consultants hired to help me write essays and perform well on tests.”

Now Roberts serves as the president of the Yale FGLI Advocacy Movement, or YFAM, an organization that focuses on community building and advocacy for FGLI students.

“The disparity between high-wealth and low-wealth students at elite institutions is … astronomical,” he said. “We know objectively that if you are wealthier you have a better chance of getting into a selective institution. And what people might say is ‘Well, obviously those people are smarter. They’ve worked harder, that’s why they’re wealthy, that’s why they got in.’ But then when you look at educational outcomes after having been enrolled … typically you find that [wealthy and low-income students] perform at the same level. So [the lack of socioeconomic diversity at competitive colleges] is not a question of intelligence, it’s very clearly a result of private wealth.” A number of studies have documented this relative lack of diversity.

“It’s no accident,” he continued, “that wealthy people are more likely to matriculate in elite institutions, because they were using their wealth to do that. It’s not like … they just get in because they’ve got the good wealthy genes.”

For him, private college admissions consulting companies are a symptom of a much larger problem. “We have these superordinate workers, these wealthy elites, who essentially work their tails off so that they can monopolize the sphere of elite colleges for their own children,” he said. “And then they can continue that cycle over and over and over again.”

Many college consulting companies say they undertake pro-bono work to support FGLI students. But according to Roberts, private college consultants play a role in the perpetuation of inequity themselves.

Since the 2019 “Varsity Blues” scandal, which revealed indicted fraudster Rick Singer’s use of bribes and standardized test fraud to help top one-percenter clients gain illegal “side-door” admission to top schools, private college consulting companies — and the U.S. higher education system itself — have faced increasing scrutiny. A new Netflix documentary about the scandal reveals just how far certain parents are willing to go to get their children into top schools.

The News spoke to students and counselors to examine the present state of the private college consulting industry, the ethics of paying for private consulting services and the future of college admissions.

‘ALONE IN THE PROCESS’

When Sam Prince ’24 told her high school counselor at East Hampton High School that she wanted to apply to Yale, the counselor told her that she was not going to get in. “I just felt really alone in the process,” she said.

So Prince, who is from Montauk, New York, hired two private counselors. She said that these counselors served separate but complementary roles: One focused on issues more directly related to college applications and admissions, while the other focused on choosing classes to take and test scores to submit. Together, the counselors provided her with “all-around” support.

“I actually thought it was really helpful,” she said. “They kind of helped me think about what the admissions [officers] were looking for in an essay, and they taught me how to bring my voice into that kind of essay.”

She said that the private counseling process was ultimately a good experience. But she also recognized that financial barriers to private college counseling are “extremely unfair.” Prince explained that she feels lucky “to have been able to seek that extra help” and expressed frustration that other students lack access to the same resources.

“I’m going to be honest,” she said. “I don’t think I would have gotten into Yale if I didn’t use [these counselors.]”

Henry Sailer ’24 attended a competitive public school in Queens, New York, and did not hire a private college admissions counselor. Sailer’s high school had a robust college office, and Sailer explained that he had access to older friends who had already gone through the college admissions process. Working with a private counselor “never came up as something necessary,” he said.

But Sailer’s cousin, who lives in a small town in Massachusetts, did hire a private counselor. “Her school didn’t have anything good,” he told me. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, or IECA, an organization that subjects its members to guidelines of good practice, wrote in an email to the News that most clients of private college counselors are “middle to professional class.” According to Sklarow, the prices “often cited by media reports are ridiculously inflated.” The average independent educational consultant in the United States charges between $4,000 and $6,000 for two years of counseling, he said.

Ivy Coach, a prominent admissions consulting company whose managing partners are [proudly] not members of the IECA, has received national media attention for its “Unlimited Package,” which offers “the ultimate level of continuous personal attention,” according to the company’s website. Its website touts the high price of this service, noting that the cost of the Unlimited Package “is actually substantially more than the fee we’re made fun of for charging — if only they knew! … [W]e make no apologies for this fee.”

Brian Taylor, managing partner at Ivy Coach, emphasized the company’s pro-bono work with military veterans and with transgender college applicants. According to Taylor, about 20 percent of Ivy Coach clients receive pro-bono consulting. The News was unable to independently verify the pro bono rates or success rates cited by any college admissions consultants quoted in this piece.

Still, Taylor said that his company must charge most of its clients. “We can only work with so many students every year,” he said. “We’re not in the business of working with the masses. And at the end of the day, while we have one of the biggest, if not the biggest, name in college counseling, we’re a small family business.”

The New York Times reported in 2019 that the cost of Ivy Coach’s “Unlimited Package” can approach $1.5 million. A lawsuit filed by Ivy Coach corroborates that figure. Taylor refused to comment on the company’s fees to the News.

The private college admissions consulting industry is extremely lucrative — in 2018, IBISWorld “estimated the [private educational consulting] sector’s annual revenue” at $1.9 billion.

‘AN ADDED LUXURY’

Taylor said that the private college admissions consulting industry “absolutely … contributes to inequity.” However, he told me that many high schools are unable to provide students with the individualized attention they need during the college application process.

“At many high schools across America and around the world, there’s a high student-to-counselor ratio,” he said. “How can you get great college consulting when the person who’s advising you is also advising all these other students?”

Studies have established a relationship between lower student-to-counselor ratios and improved outcomes after high school. According to the American School Counselor Association, or ASCA, the average student-to-counselor ratio in U.S. high schools is 311 to one. “Only 1 in 5 high school students is enrolled in a school where there is a sufficient [number] of school counselors,” the website reads; the ratio cited as “sufficient” is at most 250 students per counselor.

In particular, the ASCA site’s page entitled “School Counselors Matter” explains that “Across high schools, a school counselor who serves predominantly students of color has to serve 34 more students every year than a school counselor who serves fewer students of color, and 27 states are shortchanging either their students of color, students from low-income families, or both.”

And these resources matter: Black students are more likely than white students “to identify their school counselor as the person who had the most influence on their thinking about postsecondary education,” according to the same page.

When I spoke to Gregory Ferry, my former school counselor at Conard High School in West Hartford, Connecticut, he told me that at highly ranked public schools like Conard, students do not need paid outside assistance to apply to college.

“I think it’s an added luxury, not a necessity,” Ferry said, explaining that Conard already takes students through junior planning and senior planning processes that provide important information and personal attention.

Sklarow, on the other hand, expressed a belief that “great college counseling for all” can “help level [the] playing field.” The work of private college consultants “is helping to make the [college admissions] system more just,” he wrote. “I don’t see independent education consulting as anything but a positive.”

Peyton Aiken ’23 and Sayda Martinez-Alvarado ’23 disagree. Aiken and Martinez-Alvarado, the head advising fellows for Matriculate at Yale, a nonprofit that mentors high-achieving, low-income high school students through the college application process, told me that paid college counseling services contribute to the cycle of inequality described by Roberts. According to Martinez-Alvarado, Matriculate exists “to try to level [a] playing field” that has been tilted by “these really expensive resources.”

Private consulting companies characterize the services they provide in different ways.

Katherine Cohen, the founder and CEO of IvyWise, an educational consulting company, wrote in an email to the News that her organization offers “comprehensive services” and listed “college admissions, K-12 admissions, graduate school admissions, mentoring, academic support, standardized test preparation, and research services.”

Taylor’s description of Ivy Coach was simpler. When I asked him what Ivy Coach does, his response took up all of 10 words: “We help students get into highly selective colleges like Yale.”

‘HANDS HELD’

Michael Youmans owns CollegePrepExpress, a counseling and tutoring company in Connecticut. Youmans, who described himself as a “bleeding-heart liberal,” acknowledged that private college consulting is inherently elitist and “is a big contributor to widening a gap that we should all be focused on narrowing.”

When asked about the financial barriers to private college consulting services, Youmans admitted, “I feel guilty,” before explaining that he offers scholarships and aid to some students who cannot afford his services.

Youmans further noted that the information he provides at a high fee is also available for free on his website. “People could find the information themselves, but they want their hands held,” he said. “Just on my website alone, I make myself obsolete.” He told me that a widely advertised — and free — two-hour review session on the night before the Connecticut in-school SAT this year attracted very few students. According to Youmans, people just “don’t want to be bothered” to “cull [information about the admissions process] out, process it and use it,” because “it takes work.”

Matteo Carrabba ’23, who worked with Youmans on test prep and college applications, said, “I don’t think that using [private college counselors], period, is unethical.”

Nonetheless, Carrabba believes the consulting industry represents an ethical gray area. “It does feel a little gross to me, the extent to which money can have an effect on your prospects,” he said.

Carrabba said that Youmans helped him prepare for an SAT Subject Test in math and review SAT practice questions he had gotten wrong. After meeting with Youmans a few times for test prep services, Carrabba worked with CollegePrepExpress in the fall of his senior year. He noted in particular that Youmans helped him edit essays for concision.

Many students approach the college application process incorrectly, Taylor told the News. “Without the help of a good private college counselor, they wouldn’t necessarily have a chance of earning admission to highly selective schools,” he said.

“Some may argue that we only work with people who would already get into these schools,” Taylor said. “[But] why would they pay our fees to get into schools that they would otherwise get into? It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Youmans suggested that careful packaging and clever branding can create an illusion of efficacy. He explored a pharmaceutical analogy: A customer in a drug store is more likely to buy a nicely labeled, name-brand painkiller than the same pill in a generic bottle.

‘GAMEABLE CRITERIA’

According to Taylor, college admissions offices play a role in the flawed college application process, too. “All of these schools are contributing to inequity,” he said, referring to Yale and similarly competitive institutions. “The entire college admissions process is flawed.” Taylor thinks that college admissions offices need to “look within” and undertake significant reforms, including abolishing legacy admissions and ensuring that admissions staff are representatively diverse.

Carrabba noted that the college admissions process depends on “gameable criteria.” He explained that wealthy applicants have the leg up on both the objective and the subjective parts of college applications and expressed doubt about the existence of a simple solution to this fundamental problem.

“It’s distressing to me that there doesn’t seem to be a way to organize college admissions that isn’t gameable to people of means,” Carrabba said. A recent study showed that even subjective parts of a college application, like the essay, are linked to class; according to the study’s authors, essay content has “a stronger correlation to reported household income than SAT scores.”

Still, according to Yale sophomore Roberts, Yale’s admissions office has “done some things well,” such as providing generous financial aid packages and removing some financial barriers for low-income students. Roberts also underscored that the problem is much broader than the admissions office and that any attempt to place all of the blame on admissions officers ignores deeper societal issues.

Matriculate head advising fellow Martinez-Alvarado acknowledged that “there’s always more work to be done.” But she noted that “we have conversations with the admissions office, and it’s clear that their efforts are to diversify the undergraduate student population.”

In a statement to the News, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions & Financial Aid Jeremiah Quinlan wrote that “[a]n applicant does not need to pay anything to understand how Yale’s admissions process works or to complete a competitive application. Indeed, we know from third-party surveys of admitted students that the overwhelming majority of admitted students do not work with anyone other than their high school counselor in preparing their application.”

Mark Dunn, director of outreach and communications for the undergraduate admissions office, clarified in a follow-up email that the “third-party surveys” referenced by Quinlan are the Admitted Students Questionnaires, surveys administered by the College Board that the undergraduate admissions office conducts every few years. According to Dunn, the data is proprietary.

Echoing Quinlan, Dunn wrote, “The undergraduate admissions office works hard to ensure that prospective students have free access to absolutely everything they need to know to complete a competitive application to Yale College.”

He noted that the Yale undergraduate admissions website provides prospective applicants with extensive information and mentioned the “Inside the Yale Admissions Office” podcast launched last spring by the office. He said that one of the podcast’s stated goals is “to combat the notion that private college counselors have access to any sort of insider knowledge about the admissions process.”

‘RUN FOR THE NEAREST SET OF HILLS’

National news outlets have reported on the problem of “moonlighting,” in which college admissions officials offer private college counseling services for pay. For instance, Judith Hodara, an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania, founded a private college consulting business that she operated while serving in her admissions role.

Quinlan explained that Yale faculty and staff who serve on the undergraduate admissions committee are prohibited from serving as paid admissions counselors or consultants while they remain employed at Yale. “Yale undergraduate admissions office staff do not engage with private college consultants to discuss applicants, and the admissions office does not consider any form of advocacy on behalf of an applicant from a private consultant in the admissions process,” he wrote.

Both Quinlan and Dunn told the News that they were not aware of the policies of graduate and professional school admissions committees. “There may very well be a uniform policy,” Dunn wrote, “but you are talking about dozens of distinctive processes and selection committees, most of which will be made up of faculty. The undergraduate admissions model of a large full-time professional staff is not what you’ll find at any of the graduate and professional schools.”

A search of Yale faculty revealed that Meenakshi Alreja, an associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine and the director of minority recruitment for the Psychiatry Department, is listed as a “senior college admissions consultant” at IvySelect, a private college consulting company. According to her biography on the IvySelect website, Alreja serves on the admissions committee for the medical school.

“Her real-world experience reading thousands of admissions essays and interviewing hundreds of applicants for admission inure greatly to the benefit of IvySelect’s students,” the website reads.

The website also lists medical school admissions as one of IvySelect’s “specialties” and explains that “for those students looking for help with the actual application process, our medical school consultant’s [presumably Alreja’s] experience in having read thousands of admissions personal statements will benefit you enormously. As a member of the Yale Medical School Admissions Committee, her background and knowledge base is invaluable.”

The News was unable to confirm that Alreja still serves on the admissions committee for the Yale School of Medicine. Alreja declined an initial request for comment and did not respond to a second, more specific request mentioning her role at IvySelect. YSM Dean Nancy Brown and University spokesperson Karen Peart did not respond to requests for comment as of the time of publication.

In an article published in Inside Higher Ed, Sklarow acknowledged that a “small minority” of IECA members worked concurrently in college admissions or high school counseling roles. Michael London, founder of College Coach, said in the same article that “he has received plenty of job applications over the years from people working in college admissions … who indicated that they had every expectation of continuing to do so while being employed elsewhere.”

Taylor and Sklarow both emphasized that private college consulting companies that mention connections to college admissions offices are not to be trusted. “If you’re perusing college counseling websites and you read that they’re boasting of connections with admissions officers at highly selective schools … run for the nearest set of hills,” Taylor said.

Quinlan agreed, writing that such companies “grossly misrepresent their services and violate the ethical standards of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling [NACAC], of which Yale is a member.”

When asked about the ethics of high school counselors working concurrently as private consultants, Ferry hesitated. “It depends on the individual,” he finally said. “If they need this money on the side to supplement their career, it’s hard for me to say, ‘Don’t do that.’”

‘IVY LEAGUE IS SOMETHING THAT POPS OUT’

Many private college counselors emphasize elite educational backgrounds and past associations with admissions offices. Cohen’s biography indicates that she received degrees from Brown and Yale; she also served as a reader in Yale’s admissions office before founding IvyWise. Taylor received an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth. And Youmans received an undergraduate degree from Harvard and graduate degrees from Middlebury, Oxford and Boston College.

Cohen referred to herself as “Dr. Kat” in her email to the News. And when asked for his pronouns, Youmans, who refers to himself as “Dr. Yo,” quipped: “Dr. and he.”

Yale students and graduates, too, have turned to the world of private counseling, essay editing and tutoring. Brian Fobi GRD ’14 is the cofounder of Gurufi, an essay editing company that works predominantly on graduate school admissions. Gurufi was founded entirely by Yale students and currently employs graduates of Yale, Columbia and Oxford, according to the Gurufi website.

“To be honest, that initial part of it was a marketing thing,” Fobi told me. “You are hard-pressed to make me believe that someone who has a Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley isn’t going to be as good at [editing essays] as an undergraduate from Dartmouth. But especially when you work in an international market, ‘Ivy League’ is something that pops out.”

A number of tutoring companies, including Varsity Tutors, which claims to be “the largest tutoring and live instruction platform in the United States,” hire graduates of elite universities to work as tutors. The Varsity Tutors website’s page entitled “Best Tutors From Yale University” lists 281 certified tutors who claim to be students at or graduates of Yale.

Shreya Nuli ’24, who works as a tutor at Varsity Tutors, told me that she applied to “help people in subjects that I [know]” and to “make a quick little income.” At the moment, Nuli tutors one student weekly on SAT prep. She explained that she has also expressed interest to Varsity Tutors in working with students to edit essays.

Roberts emphasized that individual students who work as paid tutors in subjects related to college admissions are not the problem. These students are “cogs in a system which is flawed,” he said. “My critique is of [the] college [admissions] system.”

‘DEEPLY INGRAINED’

Many individuals interviewed by the News expressed doubt about the likelihood of establishing a truly equitable admissions system. Yale has made changes to its undergraduate admissions process, according to Fobi, because it wants the process “to reflect a more holistic person.”

“The problem,” he explained, “is [that] the more complexity you introduce into admissions processes, the harder it becomes for low-resource people. … The minute Yale tinkers with [its] algorithm, everybody upstream immediately adjusts their algorithm, if they have money. There’s a million ways that you can game the system.”

Roberts pointed out that wealth inequality and accompanying issues of educational equity are “deeply ingrained in our culture.” He said, “It’s kind of sad for me as someone who really wants to work towards educational equity to know that that’s what we’re going up against.”

Matriculate head advising fellow Aiken echoed Roberts’ frustration. Matriculate “is an example of working within the system to make change rather than trying to tear it down,” she said. But in the long run, it is “definitely not going to fix everything.” Martinez-Alvarado explained that “our intervention comes along very late in the [educational] process.”

She said that the talent of FGLI students is “wasted” in the current system because “you don’t have people who choose to invest in these students. But if you invest in them, they really are capable of so much.” For FGLI students, Roberts said, “a lot of the motivation is intrinsic. … There’s no money being thrown at you so you can carry on the family legacy. I think that’s one of the attributes that’s positive in FGLI students that sets them apart.”

When asked to estimate how many students come to him of their own accord, Youmans said that “It’s about 50-50. … I have crazy motivated kids and crazy motivated helicopter parents. I have both.”

Fobi explained that Gurufi used to do more work related to undergraduate admissions than it does now. “There’s a reason why we moved out of undergraduate [admissions],” he said, going on to describe the undergraduate admissions process as “problematic on a lot of levels.”

“It’s kind of a world that honestly shouldn’t exist,” he explained. “You are helping to further tilt a bad system.”

He noted that children are a “weak spot” for parents. “I do think that there are people who genuinely want to help, but it’s also the case that you can extract a lot of money from people by poking that raw spot,” he said. “I didn’t want to go down that road.”

I asked Aiken and Martinez-Alvarado if the private college consulting industry would exist in an ideal college admissions process. After a pause, Martinez-Alvarado laughed. “I mean, no,” she said. “You’re making the field uneven again.” When I asked Youmans the same question, he had a very different answer. “I think there’s [always] going to be a need,” Youmans said. “A lot of what I offer is form rather than content.”

During a lull in the conversation, I noticed a mug on Youmans’ desk and asked him what it read.

“To teach is to touch lives forever,” he said, looking at the mug and smiling. “I love it.”’

 
 

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