September 4, 2018
The data are devastating: a majority of students entering college full-time fail to graduate in four years, and roughly two out of five haven’t even earned a degree in six years. There is a monumental mismatch between student expectations when they enter college and what actually happens after arrival. While there are many factors at work, it seems there is a big information problem for high school students tackling if and where to attend college. There is the secondary issue, for those wishing to attend highly selective schools, of trying to maximize the probability that they will be accepted.
High school guidance counselors try to help face two huge obstacles. First, often they have 400-500 students that they are responsible for, making it difficult to give detailed personalized attention to individual students. Second, as my wife, a long-time counselor points out, counselors have to deal with a wide range of post-high school options for students with highly varied aspirations and capabilities, so few can become truly knowledgeable in the admissions process at all types of post secondary schools.
Affluent kids seeking to go to top Ivy League-quality schools often hire private admission counselors to help. These individuals often know admissions personnel at key colleges, have vast experience in navigating the various hurdles needed for applying, including offering hints on the all-important personal essay. These counselors typically charge several thousand dollars. Some are very good and even have written books and hosted television shows on college issues (Steven Roy Goodman in D.C. is an excellent example). But few can afford this luxury.
To offer personalized services but reduce costs considerably, there are a number of computer-based counseling/application services as well. Some major independent counseling players include Focus Admissions, Ivy Coach, and Collegewise. In additional to traditional face-to-face meetings, using modern technology such as Skype experienced personnel can pass on their wisdom to high school kids and their parents.
One such service I found particularly interesting on multiple grounds is a company called CollegeVine. To begin with, it was founded by three teenage high school friends from Montgomery Township, New Jersey: Zach Perkins, Johan Zhang, and Vinay Bhaskara, who were perplexed by the complexity of the process of getting into a highly competitive university.
These guys had a novel idea. They reasoned that the best persons to help kids decide both on where to go to school and how to get in were college students who had comparatively recently successfully navigated the process themselves at top flight schools. So CollegeVine hires students (currently 700 in all) at schools like Harvard, Stanford and Duke, pays them well ($20 or more per hour), and has them work by Skype with high school juniors and seniors. Zach, Johan and Vinay themselves all got into and initially attended top flight schools (two at Harvard, one at the University of Chicago), but became so overwhelmed by their hugely expanding admissions service that they, now 22 years old, have all dropped out of school, secured $7 million in venture capital funding, and have 65 employees at the Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters. They have had over 6,000 clients to date.
I have talked to the three founders as well as a student customer accepted at Harvard. While it varies, customers (90% of whom go to public schools) typically pay about $1,500 to use the service, and the founders brag about having a very high success rate, most students getting into one of the top schools to which they applied. Much of the focus is on the student essay, with applicants writing drafts that the CollegeVine student counselors then critique. For students seeking top schools, options like CollegeVine (and other companies as well) are worth considering.
In colleges, like with automobiles, you can buy wildly different options – there are Rolls Royce universities like the Ivy League, Lexus universities like prestigious state flagship schools or high quality liberal arts colleges, Toyota Camry universities like mid-quality state schools, and used Chevy or Honda Civic schools, like low cost community colleges. Egalitarians might decry the competitive edge provided by firms like Focus Admissions and CollegeVine, but the reality is we do not have one form of “higher education,” but many, of vastly varying quality. And more information is always better than less, so private entrepreneurs are filling a vital gap and helping narrow somewhat the inadequate information/mismatch problem pervading American higher education.