We’ve been writing about college admissions for decades and, as our loyal readers know well, we’ve reported on a number of scandals at elite colleges and in elite college admissions offices over the years but, no, we’ve never quite seen a scandal like the one that broke yesterday involving a truly desperate housewife and a “Full House” star who might be headed to The Big House. So we thought we’d focus today’s post not on every breaking development in this story but rather on the big picture of how this case — while it certainly makes for riveting reading — marks an exception to a rule in elite college admissions rather than the rule.
Does elite college admissions favor the elite? Yes, unequivocally. Do the privileged have a baked in advantage in college admissions: the ones who can pay for great SAT / ACT tutoring and college consulting? Yes, just as they do in every other aspect of life beyond admissions. But there is a right way and a wrong way to beat an unfair college admissions system at an unfair game. We at Ivy Coach do it the right way. So too do many college consultancies. This case marks an example of individuals who did it the wrong way.
The Utter Outrageousness and Chutzpah of These Bad Actors
As U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said today at a press conference, ” “We’re not talking about donating a building so a school is more likely to take your son or daughter, we’re talking about deception or fraud, fake test scores…bribed college officials.” Let those words sink in. These people bribed college athletic coaches — paying these college employees who work for colleges that receive public subsidies — to designate recruiting slots for the students on their teams (even when the students didn’t play the sports!). These people got their students extra time on tests not because they needed it due to legitimate learning disabilities but so the students could take the tests under the supervision of a paid-off proctor who would either change test answers or take the tests for the students. These people even claimed their bribes as tax write-offs, funneling their money through a sham for-profit college consultancy that was registered as a non-profit. It’s utterly outrageous!
There’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Beat an Unfair System at an Unfair Game
Is the highly selective college admissions system perfect? No. Does it favor the wealthy, the folks who can afford great SAT or ACT tutoring, the folks who can afford great private college counseling? Yes, and these are services we offer and have offered for decades, though it may come as a surprise to many that our clientele is not exclusively wealthy since we devote much of our energy each year to our pro bono work. Is it unfair that the wealthy have an advantage? Yes. But paying for an outstanding SAT tutor to coach a student to perform better on a test is markedly different from hiring someone to change answers on the test or take a test for a student. Paying for great advice on the kinds of activities a student should get involved in and the way to tell one’s story so as to stand out in admissions is markedly different from bribing officials at colleges to illicitly secure spots.
Now that doesn’t mean it’s fair that the privileged elite can donate money to colleges to improve the cases for admission of their children. In fact, we’ve been arguing from atop our soapbox in college admissions for years that even donating a building to a college should be a violation of tax law since one isn’t supposed to receive anything in return for tax-deductible donations — and yet these families are receiving preferential treatment for their children in admissions. But donating a building to a college isn’t illegal. There is no guarantee of admission for the children of these donors; there is no quid pro quo. Can it help? Yes.
You see, these people are giving money to colleges — not to officials at colleges unbeknownst to the colleges. And for folks who work with us at Ivy Coach, well, they don’t need to pay for buildings at colleges. We can’t think of a single former client who made such a donation. It’s simply not necessary. They can pay us a whole lot less for our expertise to give their children the best case possible for admission to their dream schools by presenting outstanding — and honest — applications.
We Are Very Proud of Our Body of Work
There is, as we have said, a right way and a wrong to beat an unfair system at an unfair game. At Ivy Coach, for over a quarter of a century, we’ve helped students beat an unfair system at an unfair game by making sure they’re in the right coursework, by making sure they’re taking the right tests, by brainstorming activities that they’re interested in that they can get involved in that’ll set them apart and present them as singularly talented rather than well-rounded, by helping them share their unique stories with admissions officers. We help Asian American students — who face well-known discrimination in the admissions process — overcome the implicit bias in admissions whether admissions officers admit to this discrimination or not. We annually help select veterans — always on a pro bono basis — earn admission to elite universities (typically from community colleges) after their dutiful service in uniform.
Over the last twenty-five years, Ivy Coach has worked tirelessly to tell it like it is, to make the college admissions process more transparent for parents and students. On this very blog, each and every day dating back nearly a decade (even on Yom Kippur, Christmas, and every holiday in between), we dispense advice on the college admissions process and this advice is for everyone, including for folks who we fully recognize will never become our clients. For those who do become our clients, we help them ethically and honestly earn admission to the colleges of their dreams during this intensely stressful time. We hold hands and we end fights between parents and children.
If a child wants to be the best pianist and you have the means, you hire a great piano teacher. If a child wants to be a top tennis player, you hire a tennis coach or a personal trainer. If a child wants to improve in math, you hire a math tutor. Or a physics tutor, or a Spanish tutor, or a swim instructor, or a ballet instructor, or a research mentor. And if a child wants to earn admission to the college of their dreams — and it’s a legitimate possibility if approached correctly — you hire a great private college counselor. And that’s what we pride ourselves on being at Ivy Coach. Our approach is simple (some of it just plain old common sense), and it’s probably why it’s effective.
A Defense of the Good Private College Counselors Everywhere
There are thousands of private college consulting firms. Some are good, some are not so good. Some charge a lot, some not so much. Most are ethical. This is the case in any industry — be it finance, real estate, medicine, or plumbing — and the bad actors should not besmirch an entire industry. These bad actors mark an exception to the rule, not the rule.
As an example, several Division I coaches were involved in this admissions scandal. Does that mean that most Division I coaches are bad actors? Of course not. For every Rick Pitino — who happened to get caught up in another college scandal — there are wonderful Division I coaches in swimming and field hockey and baseball and football and so many other sports who care deeply about their student-athletes. And just as Rick Pitino does not reflect every college coach nor does he cast a shadow over all of college sports, this unscrupulous college consultant does not reflect every college consultant nor does he cast a shadow over all of the private college consulting industry.
Know When to Run and Run for the Hills
We’ll leave our readers with a little story. When some folks who are not our clients but are rather prospective clients call in, they ask, “Do you have connections with admissions officers?” Sometimes we just hang up because we don’t have the patience to address such a ridiculous question. The times we don’t hang up, we say, “No.” There’s typically an awkward pause, as though we didn’t give the parents the answer they were looking for (oh well!).
We then break the silence, “And if any private college consultant should boast of connections with admissions officers, we suggest you run, run fast, and run for the hills. Why on earth would you want a college consultant interfacing with admissions? Do you think an admissions officer is going to be inclined to root for a student whose parents paid an expert to improve their case for admission? Think about it.”
We work exclusively behind the scenes as any good private college counselor does. We hire folks who previously — not currently — worked in admissions to help optimize our students’ cases for admission. We don’t interface with colleges. We don’t interface with athletic coaches. We don’t interface with development offices. Of course, if a college consultant should suggest they do interface with these folks, you know what to do…run! It seems Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, and company didn’t run.
While you’re here, feel free to hear our comments about this admissions scandal offered to: “The Huffington Post,” “The Atlantic,” “The New York Times,” or “The Daily Pennsylvanian” (and here too). Or listen to us on “iHeart Radio” and check us out on ABC News’ “Nightline” (seen below as well) or on “Business Insider Today.” Or watch Ivy Coach’s Lori Sundberg on HBO’s “Vice News Tonight.”