Your kid’s an average student: What’s it cost to boost his college application?

How the monied help get their children into top schools

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The national college admissions scandal has renewed focus on an uncomfortable truth: If mom and dad have the means, there are plenty of legal ways to boost an otherwise average student’s chances to get into a coveted university.

The scandal involved what authorities this month described as an illegal “side door” scheme of parents paying a California consultant who either bribed college coaches to flag their unathletic children as freshman recruits or paid proxies to cheat and inflate entrance exam scores. Many of those parents — including a dozen from Silicon Valley — are due in federal court in Boston on Friday to face conspiracy and fraud charges.

But for years, monied families have been taking advantage of legacy connections; coaches for applications, essays and tests; club sports and large donations as part of a multibillion-dollar annual effort to help get their kids into top schools.

“Take a typical college campus: If you take away spots in the freshman class reserved for athletes, development cases, legacies, special cases, you’ve probably taken away a third of your spots,” said Mark Sklarow, chief executive officer of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. “It is, unfortunately, one of the facts of college admission. Colleges try to create a freshman class beyond just the academic numbers.”

Legacies

Some private schools give children of alumni special consideration, hoping it will build a sense of community and grow alumni contributions. How much of a difference does it make? It depends on the school. Harvard University reported that more than one in six of its freshmen had a parent who attended the school. Harvard insists the application process “is the same for all,” though children of alumni “may receive an additional look.”

A 2015 Stanford Magazine article suggested a similar proportion of legacies admitted to Stanford, though it too emphasized that all it does is afford an applicant a second look.

Other universities don’t much care that mom or dad went there. Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicated in a 2012 post that “we don’t do legacy.” Most public schools such as the University of California don’t either, said Steven Mercer of Mercer Educational Consulting in Santa Monica, who worked in admissions and fundraising for the University of Southern California.

“Public universities don’t focus on legacy, if at all,” Mercer said.

For those that do consider legacy applicants, what kind of giving do they expect from their alumni? According to a 2007 study by Jonathan Meer of Stanford and Harvey S. Rosen of Princeton, the average annual alumni gift was $466, a figure heavily skewed by a few big donors. That adds up over the 18 years that parents spend grooming their kids for their alma mater. Giving, the researchers noted, dropped off significantly if the alumni child was rejected.

William Rick Singer sold his services as an educational consultant but pled guilty to being the mastermind behind a massive college admissions cheating and bribery scheme. (Facebook)

Educational Consultants

For most middle- to upper-middle-class parents without an Ivy League diploma on the wall or a family name on a dorm at their alma mater, educational consultants are the most available option to help their ordinary progeny stand a chance at getting into an elite college. These consultants typically worked in college admissions or as high school counselors, and offer their inside knowledge of the applicant vetting process to their clients. They help students zero in on their goals and interests to steer them to suitable colleges and help them sharpen their pitch to stand out.

The California consultant at the center of this month’s scandal, William Rick Singer, gave the profession a black eye — consultants say parents should be wary of those promising they can get any kid into an Ivy.

“We’re not trying to game the system for our clients,” said Mercer, who earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the UCLA. “We’re experienced educators here to help students and families navigate a system that can be difficult in order to help them find the right fit.”

So what’s that set you back? The most recent figures from the Independent Educational Consultants Association show average package rates across the country ranging from $4,000 to $5,400, and hourly rates averaging $200.

Mercer likens it to paying a fitness coach at a gym.

“The fees are not cheap, but a lot of families can afford what we do,” Mercer said. “We don’t see it as providing an unfair advantage. We see it as providing a service.”

But some charge and promise much more. According to online education news organization Inside Higher Ed, one leading consultant in 2005 was charging $9,999, and another sued a mother for failing to pay half of a $1.5 million consulting fee that helped get her daughter accepted to an Ivy League school.

As for results? Sklarow said demand in the industry, which has doubled in the past five years, shows parents find it effective.

Octavio Torres studies during AVID class that prepares kids for SAT and ACT college tests using Winward Academy software at Redwood high school in Larkspur, Calif. Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (James Cacciatore/Marin Independent Journal)

Test preparation

While educational consultants try to guide clients to the right college, test prep services focus on boosting a key element of the application — the student’s score on standardized tests, the SAT and the ACT, which most colleges use in addition to student grades to gauge their knowledge.

The recent scandal involved parents who paid to have cheaters inflate their kids’ scores. But many parents pay for test prep courses.

What’s that cost? At Kaplan Test Prep, perhaps the best known, online or in-person tutoring starts at $2,099 for 12 hours. They offer a refund or free additional courses if the student’s score doesn’t improve.

How much of a boost might that deliver? It’s hard to say. A 2009 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found test preparation yields a “positive but small effect on standardized admission test scores,” which it described as “in the neighborhood of 30 points” on the SAT, which at the time had a highest possible score of 2400. The highest today is 1600.

Kaplan spokesman Russell Schaffer called that study obsolete and flawed, noting that the SAT has been updated twice since then, most recently in 2016, and that the study didn’t distinguish between “comprehensive programs like ours” and “self-study or weekend programs.”

“Since there is no average or typical student, there is no average or typical score increase,” Schaffer said. “Some SAT prep students come to us already at a 1200, and can only raise their score by 400 points more, since the highest score possible is 1600. But those last 400 points are actually more challenging to get.”

REDWOOD CITY, CA – MARCH 12: The Stanford Rowing and Sailing Center is quiet, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, on the day the university’s sailing coach John Vandemoer was named in a nationwide college-entry cheating scandal. (Karl Mondon /Bay Area News Group)

‘Patrician’ sports

Another avenue for getting average students into elite schools, exploited in the recent scam, is through recruitment to what ProPublica senior editor Daniel Golden, an authority on the influence of wealth in college admissions, called “patrician sports.” Examples include rowing or “crew,” lacrosse, fencing and water polo.

“Colleges favor recruits in these sports at least partly for fundraising reasons,” Golden, author of the 2006 book “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” wrote in a recent column. “They’re important to wealthy alumni and donors who played them in college or enjoy them as leisure activities.”

But he added that these also often are sports more likely to be offered by private college preparatory schools than urban public schools. San Jose’s public Independence High School offers football, baseball and softball, basketball, soccer, wrestling, tennis, swimming, golf, volleyball, track and cross country. Atherton’s Sacred Heart, where high school tuition is $44,655, offers all that plus lacrosse and water polo.

Do the specialized sports help students get in? Sklarow said only if it’s a genuine interest. And Mercer added that the recent scandal will likely prompt colleges, which typically take students at their word on their applications, to crack down on athletic recruitment and view it more critically.

“Something that’s easy for universities to change is to lock down the incoming pipeline for their sports,” Mercer said. “That’s an easy fix.”

Meg Whitman, CEO at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, donated $30 million to her alma mater Princeton before her sons were admitted to the Ivy League school. (Bay Area News Group)

Donations

For the truly affluent, a generous gift to a prestigious university has long been known to afford the donor’s child special consideration in the admissions process, something Singer called the “back door” when he pitched parents on his illegal scheme.

Former eBay and Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman donated $30 million to build Princeton’s Whitman College residence hall before her two sons, Griffith and William Harsh, got into her alma mater.

But to the extent a donation can grease an average kid’s application to a haughty school, it’s hardly the most economical route, particularly at elite Ivy League schools.

“Today it’s probably $10 million and up,” said Sklarow.

He and others add that it’s increasingly rare, and not just because few can donate at that level.

“I’ve never seen colleges blatantly sell admission spots,” Mercer said. “Decades ago that may have been a process, but universities worked so hard over the last few decades to build their brand of being desirable and worthy, and that doesn’t come from selling admissions to donors. So when it happens, and I think it happens rarely, the price of admission is high.”

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