How College Admissions Consultants Can Address Inequality in Higher Education

Working with a College Admissions Consultant – or an Independent Education Consultant (IEC), as it’s known to industry insiders – can strengthen your application, improve your test prep strategy, and give you a better sense of exactly what admissions offices are seeking in the ideal candidate. But admissions consultants can be costly, which means the typical client is likely to be a high school student from a more affluent family. Change is needed.

How College Admissions Consultants Can Address Inequality in Higher Education

But today, with so many structural inequalities magnified by the pandemic, higher education is one of many areas where the gap is growing between the wealthy and everybody else. So where does the admissions consulting industry fit into this gap? What can college consultants do to counteract inequality in higher education at large?

We examine these questions with an interest in better understanding college consulting, and the power this industry holds to improve opportunities for students everywhere.

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“Black Hat” Versus “White Hat” Admissions Consultants

The Varsity Blues admission scandal went public in 2019. A sting by federal law enforcement revealed that dozens of wealthy families had paid enormous sums of money—in some cases, millions of dollars—so that their children could lie, cheat, and deceive their way into America’s top colleges.

The Varsity Blues scandal is a stark and extreme example of “black hat” consulting. Black hat consultants may bend the rules (i.e. fudge data, manipulate information, doctor student essays) to help secure admission advantages for their clients. And in doing so, they obscure the meaningful work of “white hat” consultants, those who adhere to the rules, who provide realistic support services for their clients, and who enjoy recognition from trustworthy certifying agencies such as NACAC, IECA, or HECA, like those we feature in our directory of educational counselors.

To learn more about the IECs who are doing the job the right way, we spoke with College Admissions Advisor Elaine Lotus Chan, who agreed that

“we all have a responsibility to reduce the inequalities not only in the college admissions world, but at a much larger societal scale. Unfortunately, money talks and our governments play a role in exacerbating the disparities. Our governments can also issue policies to mitigate the growing inequality gap.”

Structural Inequality in Higher Education

Chan’s observation about policy mitigation is worth exploring first. What is it that makes a college admissions consultant so valuable? Access to real, personal, direct, one-on-one guidance from somebody who truly understands the admissions process.

But isn’t that what guidance counselors are supposed to do?

While the wealthiest students enjoy one-on-one consultation on test prep, mock interview training, essay editing, application submission, and countless hours of personal advice and support, a recent Hechinger report places the typical public school counselor-to-student ratio at 1 to 464.

A closer look reveals even deeper disparity, with one in every five students lacking access to a guidance counselor altogether, and a startling 1.7 million students attending a school with at least one police officer but zero guidance counselors. Unsurprisingly, this counseling deprivation is most likely to occur in schools serving marginalized communities. To this end, the Hechinger report concludes that “students with the greatest need to meet with school counselors often have the least access.”

“Experienced college admissions advisors (otherwise known as IECs in the industry) can help you strengthen your profile so that your application is more attractive to selective colleges.””

This is a night-and-day contrast to the guidance enjoyed by those with the means to secure a consulting agency. Chan explains that “Experienced college admissions advisors (otherwise known as IECs in the industry) can help you strengthen your profile so that your application is more attractive to selective colleges. Experienced college advisors can also help you create a strong holistic application that highlights your strengths, personal qualities, and adds context so admission readers have a good sense of how students can contribute to their universities.”

She does caution that “No reputable college admissions advisor can ‘guarantee’ admissions,” but it seems pretty clear that this type of service can significantly improve the odds for students who make this investment.

Life at the Top

It’s true that, for a price, you can purchase the best guidance counseling money can buy. And that purchase can, in turn, provide you with the most direct line of sight to the elite college of your choice. Those who already have every financial and familial advantage in the college admissions process can invest additional resources into solidifying this advantage. It is a symptom of a system that rewards wealth as much as, or more than, merit. And the greater your wealth, the wider the world of purchasable opportunities available to you.

An article in The Seattle Times captures the dynamic. A New York-based company called Ivy Coach charges its clients up to $1.5 million for the five-year package which is completely legal and which “begins as early as eighth grade, as students are steered toward picking the right classes and extracurriculars to help them stand out from the crowd. Then comes intensive preparation for the SAT or ACT, both ‘coachable exams,’ explained Brian Taylor, the company’s managing director, followed by close editing of college essay.”

Those who already have every financial and familial advantage in the college admissions process can invest additional resources into solidifying this advantage.”

Ivy Coach also does its share of charitable service, providing its counseling package to military veterans and servicemembers free of charge. However, according to its website, this pro bono program required Ivy Coach to discontinue a similar program aimed at underserved populations and first-generation college students.

When asked about the socioeconomic implications of this business model, Taylor pondered, “Is that unfair? That the privileged can pay? Yes. But that’s how the world works.”

True enough. This is indeed the way the world works. Higher education is plagued by inequality. There is compelling evidence that the institution of college is doing more to magnify inequalities than provide opportunities for social mobility. Journalist Paul Tough voices this argument in his book, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, which finds that “At Ivy Plus college’s, on average, more than two-thirds of undergraduates grew up rich, and fewer than 4 percent of students grew up poor. Elite college campuses are almost entirely populated by the students who benefit the least from the education they receive there: the ones who were already wealthy when they arrived on campus.”

Factors like the skyrocketing cost of tuition, plummeting admission rates at America’s top colleges, the continued decline in state funding for public options, and America’s generally widening opportunity gap between the affluent and the underserved have intensified this effect.

And in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this inequality is more pronounced and severe than it has been in decades. Consulting is not unlike countless other cottage industries that benefit from the staggering cost of college. So what responsibility should the College Admissions Consulting business shoulder in confronting this inequality?

As the investment in a four-year degree grows more outrageous, it’s easier than ever to make an argument in favor of protecting this investment through the purchase of advantage. This is the impulse fueling an entire ecosystem of educational services from testing companies and test prep services to admissions consultants and even contract cheating services.

But growing inequality threatens to derail the mission of higher education in profound and far-reaching ways. If the post-pandemic admission trends are any indication, diminishing access and opportunity do directly threaten to shrink the college pool, shutter cash-strapped schools, and ripple through the educational services sector. So to those businesses who do profit handsomely as a byproduct of this inequality, long-term survival may depend on a shift in perspective.

Shifting to a Service Orientation

Chan sees this as both a responsibility and opportunity for the consulting industry, noting that she “advocates for IECs (Independent Education Consultant) to all contribute to serving families in need. Several selective colleges actually have programs in place for high performing need-based students—check Questbridge. I see a lot of universities performing outreach to help increase college access to underserved students. IECs often receive a bad rap among high school counselors, but I think this could change if more IECs helped the less privileged.”

This is a critical observation, especially in light of the yawning chasm in counseling opportunities for those who attend schools in underserved communities and those who have the means to pay tens or hundreds of thousands on outside consulting. In spite of the disrepute foisted upon the industry by the Varsity Blues Scandal, Chan notes that there are “IECs and folks in this business who have been incredibly altruistic and who provide free web content and resources to all families.”

“I see a lot of universities performing outreach to help increase college access to underserved students. IECs often receive a bad rap among high school counselors, but I think this could change if more IECs helped the less privileged.””

However, she agrees that there is still more that IECs could be doing to help higher education redress its growing inequality issues.

Among them, Chan suggest that IEC’s could:

  • Offer a sliding scale for fees based on income
  • Provide pro bono services to a few under-represented clients each year
  • Volunteer at community-based organizations
  • Conduct free workshops in the community

These suggestions not only point the way to a more egalitarian approach in consulting, but they underscore the real value contained in the IEC industry. The Varsity Blues scandal painted an unflattering picture of the consulting industry. Indeed, Chan called it a “Sleazy way to help already privileged families.” But in truth, IEC’s have tremendous potential to contribute improvements that are so desperately needed across higher education.

College consultants often have background and working experience in the admission offices at top colleges. This means consultants share a uniquely relevant body of knowledge about the application and selection process. This knowledge has tremendous value to students of every background, which makes the consulting industry particularly well-suited to helping higher education confront its own inequality issues.

Managing Expectations

As to what else College Admissions Consultants could be doing to improve the outlook for students across a diverse array of backgrounds, Chan suggests that managing expectations should be an essential dimension of service. The reality is that even for students with every advantage, elite colleges are becoming more competitive every year. The top schools are receiving more applications than ever before, even as the pandemic has precipitated a historical downturn in college applications across the broader higher ed landscape.

As a result, admission rates are plummeting at America’s most prestigious schools. This means that the most competitive schools are becoming even more competitive while smaller regional colleges struggle to pay their bills.

One way to level the playing field is to ensure that candidates for college are being matched with colleges where they have the best chance of actually succeeding. The key, says Chan “is to manage expectations. Those colleges with admit rates of < 10% are ‘lottery colleges.’ Highly qualified students may not be admitted. Colleges want to admit a class of students each year that matches their institutional priorities, and for many, increases diversity. So, what are students to do?”

Chan answers from her own experience:

  • First, dismiss the U.S. News Ranking—it does not include criteria that reflect a student’s experience (much has been discussed about this - Google it!).
  • Next, I show families Frank Bruni’s book Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be, to dispel myths that attending a ‘brand name college’ guarantees success. Or, the flip side, to dispel the myth that attending a lesser known college has less desirable post-grad outcomes.
  • Then, create a balanced list—one with a range of colleges where the student’s profile is above, at, or below the average admitted freshman profile. A lot of the evaluation is qualitative, so stats alone aren’t going to determine likelihood of admission.

These suggestions add an important dimension to the conversation of improving equality across consulting, and consequently, across higher education admissions in general. Encourating a realistic set of expectations for every student—regardless of financial background—is one potential way of improving distribution of opportunities across the entire higher education landscape instead of contributing to the glut of applications at only the top schools.

Chan also stresses the importance of only consorting with reputable consulting companies, which can be identified as such for their affiliation with one of several associations—NACAC, IECA, HECA.

“Members of these groups abide by a code of ethics.” Says Chan. “I think families understand that not everyone deploys tactics of the likes of varsity blues.”

Making Use of Additional Resources

Chan also points out that IECs are only one part of a much broader network of services, organizations and districts with the resources and will to help students. To this end, Chan notes that “Awareness is a big barrier for students—they simply aren’t aware of what’s available.”

“I tell all families,” says Chan, “not only those without a large budget, to make use of the available free resources both at the high school and online. Students should absolutely plug into their high school’s college and career center. They can also get involved with community-based groups to receive help. Schools can do their part to promote such organizations.”

In fact, NACAC offers its own directory of CBOs that can be accessed free of charge, and which make it their mission to advance opportunities for students of every background. For more, take a look at NACAC’s Coalition for Colleges List. Stay tuned as we expand our own focus to spotlight some of those CBOs that are helping to make a difference.

Academic Influence has also compiled its own list of IECs with a reputation for excellence. Every consultant on our list is affiliated with NACAC, IECA, or HECA. Check out the Best College Admissions Consultants by State.

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