Finance

What does it take to get into an Ivy League college? For some students, a $750,000 consultant.

Ways to secure a scholarship, as cost of college soars


Ways to secure a scholarship, as cost of college soars

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Getting into an Ivy League college or another elite university requires hard work from a student, including top grades, scores and stellar essays. But for some wealthy families, it takes a bit more to tip the scales in their child’s favor: College consultants who can charge up to $750,000. 

The rise of concierge college consultants comes as acceptance rates for top universities have continued to shrink. Only about 3.5% of the nearly 60,000 annual applicants for Harvard’s class of 2027 gained admittance — down from about 16% in 1980. Other top colleges have similarly shaved their acceptance rates to the low single digits.

“These are the 1% of the 1%,” said Christopher Rim, the founder and CEO of Command Education, which charges $750,000 for a six-year consulting package, of his clients. “Their biggest priority is their child’s education and health — you can’t compare Harvard against a state school.”

He added, “They want every resource out there. These parents care so much about who their kids are surrounded with. They want quality friends.”

Across the U.S., thousands of high school seniors are now sending off their applications ahead of general admissions deadlines, which typically fall in early January. But wealthy families can start prepping their kids well before senior or junior year, with some hiring consultants as early as middle school to start honing their kids’ passions and to create a compelling case for top colleges’ admissions teams.

It’s more than just bragging rights for these parents, as having an Ivy League pedigree is viewed as securing a foothold in an increasingly competitive world. And an elite college degree can pay dividends down the road, with a recent study from Harvard economists finding that grads of Ivy League and equivalent schools are 60% more likely to have incomes among the top 1% compared with those who didn’t attend those colleges.

“For high-net-worth families, this is part of their generational wealth planning — to plan their children’s future,” said Adam Nguyen, the founder of Ivy Link, a consultancy that charges from about $150,000 up to $500,000. “In the U.S., we don’t have an aristocracy. It’s been about meritocracy and the way to achieve social status in the U.S. is based on education.”

Most U.S. college students attend a school other than an Ivy League institution, with 99% of students choosing this route.  And a majority of the nation’s roughly 1,300 colleges and universities accept most of the students who apply, Pew Research Center found in 2017.

Concierge college consulting

Of course, the rich already have a leg up on gaining entry to Ivy League and other elite colleges. So-called “Ivy plus” colleges — the eight Ivy League colleges along with MIT, Stanford, Duke and University of Chicago — accept children from the 1% at more than twice the rate of any other income group who score similarly on SAT or ACT scores, the Harvard economists found.

Such advantages reflect the yawning gap between the top 1% of income-earners in the U.S. and other Americans over the last half century, with wealth increasingly concentrated at the top and wage growth largely stagnant for the typical worker. Although a range of factors have contributed to rising inequality, some experts say that the skyrocketing cost of higher education and the prevalence of legacy admissions at top schools have aggravated the problem.

The stakes of getting into highly competitive colleges were underscored by the Varsity Blues scandal, a nationwide scheme that was engineered by a college advisor, Rick Singer, and which ensnared wealthy celebrities and businesspeople. Parents paid Singer to bribe college officials and to find ways to cheat on the tests, boosting their children’s scores. Singer was sentenced to more than 3 years in prison, and many of his clients also served time. 

High-end college counselors today say wealthy students need to work hard, and that a big bank account alone isn’t enough to gain entry to the Ivy League.

“We are very upfront if they don’t do the work, it’s a waste of time and money,” said Rim, who is an alum of Yale University. “We even get rid of students. I’m not in the business of wasting time and money.”

So what do these high-end consultants do? First, they often begin working with students in middle school because colleges scrutinize an applicant’s history starting in 9th grade, which means kids need to demonstrate their focus and drive as soon as they step foot into high school. 

“To prepare, to have a strong footing in 9th grade, you have to start the child much earlier to build their interest and passion,” noted Nguyen, who is an alum of Columbia and Harvard and previously worked in Columbia’s admissions office. 

“Every dollar was worth it”

That means talking with a child and coaching them on developing their interests, with Rim noting that his team helped a young woman interested in fashion and beauty build her own YouTube channel and become an influencer in the space. Rim said the student was ultimately accepted at two Ivies and Stanford.

They’re on call at all times, with one parent who hired Rim’s company telling CBS (and who asked that her name be disclosed because of the sensitivity of hiring an expensive consultant) noting that she’ll text her Command Education consultant at 11 p.m. and get a response in 5 minutes. 

“Chris was able to help my son create his own project and was able to help him really develop his entrepreneurial skills,” the parent noted, adding that her son was accepted into University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, his top choice – while adding that their younger high-school age child is now working with Command Education as well.

“As you know, applying to college is the most stressful process for the entire family,” the parent said. “I cannot believe some of these acceptance rates.” But, they added, because their son got into their top choice, “Every dollar was worth it.”

“Parents are just nervous”

It’s not only ultra-wealthy families who are anxious about getting their kids into good colleges — plenty of middle-class families share those worries, with the added pressure of how to pay for an education that can set you back $90,000 a year, before financial aid.

But many families who hire college consultants pay far less, ranging from hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars for their fees. And most start in high school, not middle school, to prep their kids for the process. 

“Parents are just nervous,” said Michelle McAnaney, the founder of The College Spy and a former middle and high school counselor who charges from several hundred dollars to about $16,500 for various levels of counseling. “Most of my calls are from 11th-grade students or last-minute seniors” who need help to finish their applications.

Some of that anxiety comes from Gen X parents who applied to colleges when they had much higher acceptance rates — and who are now frequently surprised to learn that so-called “safety” schools are far from that. For instance, Boston University now accepts 14% of applicants, down from 54% in 2007.

“A lot of [colleges] have become a lot more difficult to get accepted to,” McAnaney said. “That might be where the families are coming from when they have this anxiety.”

Students in public schools

Erika Kerekes, a college essay coach in Los Angeles who works with mostly public school students, noted that one challenge is that current seniors were in 9th grade during the first full year of the pandemic, and lost a lot of school time and extracurriculars as a result. And many have never had to write the type of personal essay that’s part of college applications.

On top of that, big city public schools might have one guidance counselor serving hundreds of students, which means they probably won’t know the kids as well as those at suburban or private schools or those who are hired, she said. 

And Kerekes as well as other consultants and parents noted that having a third-party expert can help avoid friction in family relationships during a stressful time.

“The parents are anxious about making sure the kids are okay during the process,” Kerekes said. “It’s a very difficult time for them — they know the stakes are high, they are taking heavy class loads, and they have things to do apart from college admissions. They feel this is a mountain on top of regular responsibilities.”

In McAnaney’s experience, parents also turn to consultants to work with their child on a stressful task with deadlines that can’t be fudged. “They say, ‘We need your help to make sure they get that essay done on time’,” she added.

That was one of the motivations for parent Marcia Zellers, a marketing executive in Los Angeles, who noted that she felt conflicted about paying several hundred dollars for a college counselor for her daughter, who attended a public high school and is now a student at Cornell. 

“I felt guilty that I was feeding the college industrial process,” she noted. “But the pros were, for something that was affordable as it was, why not try to get a little extra help? I don’t think the parents should be too much in that process because it’s a very tense process and for a parent to be involved isn’t great anyway.”

Finding a good fit

Parents and consultants for middle-class families also noted that part of the work involves finding the right fit for a student — and it might not be an Ivy League college. Meg Rosequist, 53 and an attorney in Los Angeles, said she paid several thousand dollars for a consultant to help her son apply to colleges two years ago. He’s now a sophomore at University of California, Berkeley. 

“I liked him because his approach was, ‘There are lot of good schools out there, let’s find a good fit,” she said, adding that her son didn’t apply to any Ivy League colleges. 

The consultant also helped at a time when her son, like other students, was coping with his high school’s shutdown, which also ended some extracurriculars. In the end, her son co-founded a Model UN program during the pandemic, she noted.

As for consultants to the 1%, it’s also about helping students find their passions and, possibly, a path in college that will carry them into their professional lives.

“It’s not just about grades and test scores, those are a given,” said Nguyen. “A place like Columbia is looking for a talent, a niche — a passion and something that helps the student contribute to the school in a meaningful way.”

Still, Nguyen noted that the edge that wealthy students can gain isn’t always fair. “Overall, having resources definitely helps increase your admissions odds significantly more,” he said. “And so there is no easy answer to that from where I’m standing.”

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