Skip to content

Class Warfare

What the cottage industry of admissions consultants tells us about American higher education

Let’s say you’re doing all right—happily married, a decent kid, solid upper-middle-class income. The question is: What would you do to get your kid into the top 1 percent? In other words, how much would you pay for a chance at the Ivy League?

You’ve already paid for the cello lessons and test prep, tennis camp, and a mission trip to Guatemala. But there are a million other privileged little dorks out there clutching their 4.0 GPAs and 95th-percentile SAT scores, all banging at the gates of the same dozen-odd uber-elite colleges.

So you hire an admissions consultant. They do everything: essay advice, extracurricular planning, college selection strategy, some light emotional therapy. Initiates into the mysteries of college applications—many of them former admissions officers themselves—they promise, if not to guarantee your kid admission to hyper-competitive elite schools, then at least to materially improve the odds.

The cost? If you’re a Manhattan private school parent, $40,000 for a full advisory package is not unheard of. Though that may sound ludicrous, it might not be a bad deal if attending an elite college really does grease one’s passage into the increasingly prosperous 1 percent.

Once sold to only the filthiest of the rich, college admissions consultants have ballooned their market to include the merely rich as well as the ever-aspirational middle class. In the past decade, their domestic ranks have expanded at least fourfold, making college admissions advice an estimated one-billion-dollar industry in 2018. Just as the once-niche service of SAT tutoring gradually became de rigueur, admissions consultants are becoming yet another fixture of adolescence—one more routine expense for families striving to propel their children upward—provided, of course, that they can afford it.

For typical applicants to competitive colleges, rates range from $85 to $350 an hour. Weekend boot camps for Ivy seekers can run as high $10,000 a pop. For the most sought-after advisers, whose oracular insights are the talk of Tribeca gossip circles and Palo Alto neighborhood listservs, a multiyear package can top six digits. Internationally, rates go parabolic. In one extraordinary example, the advisory group Ivy Coach sued a Vietnamese family over a disputed $1.5 million bill. As Ivy Coach declares in a forceful display of elite swagger on its website: “We make no apologies for our fees.”

Behind the rapid growth of college consulting into a billion-dollar industry are several compounding trends: plunging acceptance rates, decades of rising interest among international students, soaring tuitions. And what propels each of these developments in turn is a powerful incentive to Ivy-branded achievement: the growing economic rewards weighted to an elite college diploma.

Seen from this vantage, the insanely overcapitalized quest for an edge in the admissions scrum is a simple outgrowth of market-driven rational choice. In funneling kids to the highest rung of the income ladder or keeping them there, no colleges come close to the so-called Ivy-Plus schools—the eight Ivies plus the University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and Duke. One in five Ivy-Plus graduates ends up in the top 1 percent. For schools that are less elite but still competitive—Williams, say, or Johns Hopkins—the odds are about half that. And in at least one respect, the liberal fable of meritocratic achievement proves out within the cloistered world of the Ivy Pluses: the less rich one is upon enrolling at one of them, the more the boost in lifetime earnings one will get. And there’s never been a better time to join the 1 percent.

Some academics dispute the actual rewards associated with elite education; top colleges might just be good at selecting those already destined for upper tax brackets, thanks to wealth or talent or other cultural determinants of individual success. In a sense, though, the ultimate derivation of such qualities in an aspiring Ivy student counts for far less than the perception that the Ivy Pluses are the best place to husband them and draw them forth into the great arenas of adult achievement. To confirm the power of that image, just talk to any of the thousands upon thousands of parents shelling out five-figure fees to get their kids an inside track on the elite admissions race. Admissions anxiety is class anxiety.

For the old rich, an Ivy berth means status preservation. “You’ve got people trying to make sure their kids don’t fall down a class, basically,” said Kara, a consultant who asked to go by a pseudonym so as not to offend her clientele, which includes Middle Eastern royalty and scions of multinational conglomerate fortunes, as well as teachers and hairdressers. “They want what we all want, which is for their kids to have it at least as good as they do.”

It’s a different proposition, of course, for parents who came from less. In their careers, they might have seen Ivy grads glide ahead on the viscous trails left by alumni networks. Here, the thinking is: “I want to buy my kid into this system that I had to claw my way into,” Kara said. “I’d like to help them skip a few steps on the Monopoly board if I can.”

Who can blame them?

Guides for the Perplexed

Christopher Rim (Yale ’17) knows his way around the Monopoly board. At his boutique admissions advisory, Command Education, the consultants are mostly recent Ivy grads. For advising a select group of teens on wangling their way into top-tier colleges, Rim charges $1,500 an hour. He is twenty-three.

As is usual for admissions consultants, Rim spends a lot of time managing expectations, pruning lists of target colleges, reviewing essays, quelling nerves. But the youth of the consultants at the Command team sets them apart. They have a refreshing big-sibling vibe, plus valuable connections on campus.

They also offer something extra: branding. Consultants will tell you that colleges don’t want well-rounded students, but a well-rounded class. The goal is not to marshal a bland array of overachievers, but to confect a stimulating roux of Malala Yousafzais and Doogie Howsers. Admissions is not so much meritocratic sorting; it’s “social engineering,” as Kara put it. Rather than a Rushmore approach to extracurriculars, the gatekeepers want a “singularly talented student,” one adviser told me, a student with a “hook.”

As Ivy Coach declares in a forceful display of elite swagger on its website: “We make no apologies for our fees.”

Working with kids plotting out their admissions stratagems as early as seventh grade, Rim sharpens that hook. A high-school client in Seattle had an idea to collect sneakers for poor kids who lacked running shoes. Enter Rim. “I helped draft emails for the student and worked with him to figure out which executives to contact: Nike, Adidas, Asics,” Rim said. Within a few days, one of the megabrands shipped four hundred pairs.

Like other socially conscious consultants, Rim also takes on some pro bono cases. One of them, a formerly homeless student, wanted to send hygiene packages to homeless shelters. “We helped him connect with a huge corporation who funded everything, and he’s sent fifty thousand homeless packages,” Rim told me. “We helped him create that, helped him get press on it, helped him really take it to the next level.”

This approach, Rim said, justifies the price tag. “We help students build their website, we help students build their logo, their SEO—building their entire portfolio for them really on an advisory level.” The result: Rim claims a 96 percent success rate on getting his students—an admittedly already select group—into at least one of their top-three schools.

What Rim and other topflight consultants provide is essentially PR. Brian Taylor, managing director of Ivy Coach, emphasizes the importance of branding. “When our students get in, they’re branded a certain way,” Taylor told me. Ideally, admissions officers will think of applicants “in two to three words, whatever words it is we’ve come up with.”

Within the industry, Ivy Coach has a reputation as an unapologetic boundary-pusher, both in prices and in practices. One infamous blog post assures prospective clients that when their advisers “strongly revise” students’ essays, they “leave not one fingerprint.”

One of the reasons we at Ivy Coach are able to help our students earn admission to their dream schools year after year is because an admissions officer would never know we—or anyone but the student—had a hand in their essays. It’s a big part of our secret sauce, a sauce which happens to be delicious.

There’s an obvious destabilizing paradox at the heart of such brazen appeals to make comparatively privileged teenagers seem like original thinkers and entrepreneurial agents of social reform: subcontracting out one’s written work as an Ivy League student would be likely grounds for academic discipline should the practice come to light.

It was inevitable, then, that the field would be rocked by a scandal like Operation Varsity Blues, which greeted the public in March with headlines that Aunt Becky from Full House and the eponymous creator of the budget Target fashion brand Mossimo had been embroiled in a criminal scheme that involved falsified athletic careers, SAT tampering, a phony non-profit, and six-figure bribes to college officials. Celebrities including Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin evidently bought into a sales pitch offered by the scheme’s mastermind: that between the crowded “front door” of ordinary admissions and the nigh-inaccessible “back door” of multimillion-dollar donations and handshakes with trustees, there was a “side door” into elite colleges that might be eased open with some well-placed lucre and a little audacious photoshopping.

Most admissions consultants, it’s worth stressing, are above-board. But there is still a pronounced thread of mission creep in the portfolios of the elite segment of the market. The admissions arms race has turned the top-end consultant from a simple expert-for-hire to a sort of private Svengali for affluent youth. The old mission-trip-to-Guatemala essay has become passé. Now, ultrawealthy parents swap tales of launching charities just to give their kids interesting nonprofit work; one family reportedly bought a Botswanan orphanage as grist for a college essay. If this is what it now takes to stand out in the crowded high-end admissions market, why not hire someone?

It was inevitable that the field would be rocked by a scandal like Operation Varsity Blues, which involved falsified athletic careers, SAT tampering, a phony non-profit, and six-figure bribes to college officials.

Mark Sklarow calls the new type of consultancy “concierge services.” Sklarow runs the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a group dedicated to the daunting task of maintaining standards in the field. In the old days, he said, consultants might encourage a student to start working the phones in order to land an internship. “Now with these new sort of concierge-level services, people are like, ‘I will get you your internship,’” he said.

Clearly, these life coaches make it ever harder for those without means to elbow their way into elite schools. For rich kids, meanwhile, the process provides an early entree into one of the great traditions of wealth: conspicuous, self-glorifying charity work.

Although many in the consulting industry resent the concierge approach, there’s a destabilizing paradox here as well: any attempt to shed light on the absurdity and excess of the admissions scramble only breeds more. As Kara told me as I was outlining my approach to this piece, “Articles like this are part of the white noise vortex.” No doubt, the uproar over Operation Varsity Blues led some wealthy parents not to abandon their dreams of seeing their kids off to impressive schools, but to mull the “side door” option.

It has long been the case that in elite admissions, sunshine is more of a fertilizer than a disinfectant. In the early 2000s, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden broke a string of stories chronicling corruption in admissions, from politicians pulling strings to billionaires like Charles Kushner bribing their kids through the storied gates of Ivy. Then he started getting calls. “Some of the Journal’s wealthier subscribers regarded my series not as investigative journalism but as a how-to guide,” Golden wrote, citing a “high-tech tycoon” seeking help getting his academically undistinguished daughter into an Ivy.

This presents a quandary. As Kara explained, “You and your gory stories keep me employed, but frankly I would rather have people be less stressed.” So why is everyone so stressed?

The Gatekeepers

It is, of course, nothing new to regard elite higher education as a pivotal bulwark of America’s distended class structure. In 1964, sociologist E. Digby Baltzell described universities as “the most important elite-selecting and elite-producing institutions” of the American caste system. In a buzzy cover story in The Atlantic last year, Matthew Stewart fingered universities as a culprit in the rise of a “new American aristocracy” as he sought out a privileged academic perch for his daughter. At one point in his travels, Stewart visited an admissions consultant who recommended a $12,000 advisory package, plus an $11,000 “cultural tour” of France for Stewart’s daughter.

Yet when we talk about admissions, considerations of class quickly give way to more febrile topics friendly to inherited templates of culture warfare, such as affirmative action and standardized testing. These issues are undeniably important—but they also tend to distract attention from a deeper truth: elite colleges are structured, from root to branch, to perpetuate privilege.

The modus operandi in admissions, after all, is selectivity: the more selective the school, the higher the rankings. And the higher the rankings, the more applicants top-tier schools get. It all feeds alumni donations. Overall college attendance is up over 20 percent since the early 2000s, yet enrollment at the top ten ranked colleges has grown only half that. At these schools, average acceptance rates fell from 20 percent in 2002 to 7.7 percent in 2017. In 1952, Harvard took in 63 percent of its applicants; now it’s less than 5 percent.

Despite these remorselessly narrowing trends for all applicant demographics, many white families still come away cursing affirmative action. The share of white students at top schools has steadily fallen, replaced largely by a growing Asian population. Liberal-minded white kids thus find themselves caught in a queasy sort of double-consciousness. “I always tell kids: You know how you want to go someplace diverse?” the pseudonymous Kara told me. “The way they’re going to do that is they’re not going to admit every kid that looks like you.”

A man holding a clipboard guards the gate of prosperity as rows of faceless teenagers await judgement.
© Shannon Freshwater

In truth, diversity numbers have lagged behind demographics. Black students made up 15 percent of college-aged kids, yet only 6 percent of first-year enrollment at one hundred universities analyzed by the New York Times in 2017—a gap that has expanded since 1980. At the top ten ranked schools, the share of African Americans has barely budged since 2002. And Latinx students have lost ground relative to demographics.

If the data show any systematic preference, it’s for wealth. At the Ivy-Plus colleges, more students come from the top 1 percent than the bottom half of the income distribution. The share of 1-percenters has only grown since the early 2000s, as the proportion of poorer students has fallen. At Brown, Penn, and Princeton, kids from the bottom quintile are outnumbered by those from the top-point-one percent alone.

These data belie the widespread assumption that admissions favors the needy, or that elite institutions’ “need blind” policies really alter their socioeconomic makeup. Joie Jager-Hyman, a consultant and former admissions officer at Dartmouth, said that the two groups most eagerly accommodated are poor kids of merit and those whose surnames adorn buildings. “Where I think it’s problematic and where a lot of good kids do get lost is in that middle zone,” she said.

This image of a hollowed-out middle reflects the story of American inequality—but hardly because the poor are gaining ground. The share of low-income kids at elite schools is falling. And the percentage of students at top colleges relying on Pell Grants, which are federally subsidized supports for lower-income students, is much smaller than at colleges generally. Perhaps there’s still an edge for the low-income teen who also meets thresholds on tests and grades. But they are very much the exception, and not the rule.

The Upper Cruft

Last year, anti-affirmative-action activist Edward Blum led a lawsuit against Harvard, alleging that the admissions office was discriminating against Asian students, on the grounds that existing racial preferences work to the disadvantage of Asian Americans. Yet, tellingly, the facts of the case barely concern affirmative action. Instead, the evidence largely illustrates how Harvard helps a different class of kids, mostly rich and mostly white: the cohort known as legacy admissions. At Harvard, legacies are more than five times more likely to get in than those without old-school family ties; more than 20 percent of white Harvard students get in this way.

One key reason why parents will shell out forty-grand for admissions help is that many top spots are never even in play. The system that consultants are paid to navigate was crafted originally to preserve class and ethnic purity, then carried over, largely unaltered, into the age of so-called meritocracy. It is delimited by two basic goals: raising money and pleasing alumni.

Every applicant has a file in the admissions office. If daddy’s an alum, or mom’s a senator, or grandpa has a habit of peeling off novelty-sized checks to the school, the file is flagged. Some flagged kids are shooed right in. Other times, the flag proves a tiebreaker between two otherwise comparable applicants. And for every spot set aside thanks to money and connections, the value of consultants rises.

It was not ever thus. Early last century, elite colleges based admissions on the somewhat genuinely meritocratic criteria of admissions tests in Latin and geography and the like. Yet by the 1920s, the system had let in too many Jews for their taste. The WASP establishment reacted by instituting the admissions policies we recognize today, from legacy to consideration of “character” to preference for country-club athletics.

As the Harvard lawsuit demonstrates, these techniques continue to favor the white and the rich down through the present day. One researcher found that at thirty top universities, having alumni relations tripled one’s odds of admission; for children of alumni, the odds are nearly eight times better. Administrators often rationalize preference in light of the contributions alumni make; Harvard defended its legacy policy in court by noting, forthrightly, that it “depends on its alumni for financial support.” Getting in on the basis of money and connections, in other words, is justified by one’s connection to money.

Any attempt by elite institutions to shake off the legacy straightjacket meets fierce resistance. When Yale curtailed legacy admissions in the late 1960s, alumni revolted. Among those standing athwart history was William F. Buckley Jr., who brayed that his alma mater, once the “kind of place where your family goes for generations” became a school where “the son of an alumnus, who goes to a private preparatory school, now has less chance of getting in than some boy from P.S. 109 somewhere.” Yale soon reversed course.

Varsity athletics also provides an obliging point of entry for old money. Every year, admissions offices receive lists of prospects from the coaches of sports favored by the gentry, like lacrosse and fencing. Across the Ivy League, 65 percent of athletes are white, excluding international students. Of Harvard’s athletes—among them golfers, sailors, and water polo players—approximately three-quarters are white, and they tend to be richer than their peers.

Of course, hard cash can also open doors. Yet admissions experts told me that even the wealthiest parents tend to underestimate how much this requires. If it comes to that, however, the naked cost of elite admission probably exceeds $10 million. Just so you know.

The New College Try

Not every student aims for Ivies, of course. Consultants often work hard to get families to look beyond the influential but widely loathed top rankings published by the U.S. News & World Report. But Americans tend to mimic their betters, and lower-tier colleges are no different. As demand for higher ed has grown, colleges down the line have sought distinction by increasing their selectivity. Combine this upward momentum with a roughly 30 percent rise in published tuition rates in the last decade, and you can readily appreciate how the same admissions mania that grips the gentry has crept into the middle classes.

The consulting industry has expanded to meet the demand. The average client today is “a middle-class, public-school suburban family,” Sklarow, head of the industry organization, told me. Consultants have admissions offices to thank for the business. “What we’re in the middle of—this more opaque, more aggressive, more anxiety-producing era—in part, this has been orchestrated by competitive colleges,” Sklarow said.

The industry is now undergoing “corporatization,” Sklarow said, with chains emerging from a largely mom-and-pop field. He compares the growth to that of The Princeton Review and Kaplan in prior decades—formerly small-time operations that mushroomed into a multibillion-dollar test-prep industry.

If the data show any systematic preference, it’s for wealth. At the Ivy-Plus colleges, more students come from the top 1 percent than the bottom half of the income distribution.

Among the admissions entrepreneurs is Tom Pabin, a Kentucky-based adviser whose Class 101 business has grown from a volunteer gig he offered as a youth minister twenty years ago to a network of just over forty franchises nationwide. For three years of advising, average fees total around $3,000. Though he charges clients far lower rates than tony Manhattan consultants do, Pabin said his business is still lucrative: “You can make a six-figure income. Our top franchise owners make two or three times that.”

Pabin also helps his mostly middle-class clientele secure financial aid, an increasingly vital part of the profession. The Class 101 website boasts of saving families “an average of $200,000 in merit-based scholarships alone.” That is, as the site proudly announces, “an incredibly attractive” return on investment.

That gets to a key question: Are admissions consultants worth the cost? When the price of an elite degree tops $200,000, is it worth dropping a tenth of that to ensure the best fit?

Perhaps, but let’s take it further: Back of the envelope, and ignoring tuition, is $30,000 a sensible price for the high-end admissions help? Say you’re 50 percent confident that a consultant will get your kid into a Brown or a Princeton over a mere Tufts. If the research is right (there is some debate), the jump from very selective to most competitive translates into 6 to 8 percent higher earnings. Add that up over a lifetime, and $30,000 starts to look reasonable.

Although this calculation leaves out important intangibles, it reflects the basic tradeoff that consultants see parents make—and that the burgeoning admissions-gaming complex eagerly profits from. “People will pay a premium to get into an Ivy League or a school like a Stanford or a Duke, as opposed to going to a very good school like USC,” said Ivy Coach’s Taylor. “The incremental cost isn’t all that significant when it means going to a great school instead of a pretty good school.”

Why the earnings boost? For one thing, top employers use alma maters as a convenient yardstick of merit. Equally important are the chummy networks that elite schools cultivate. Former high-end admissions consultant and author Lacy Crawford pointed to these networks as a big selling point for schools like her own alma mater, Princeton. “That network opens doors, and that is why universities work so hard to keep people in the community,” Crawford said.

As a former Harvard admissions officer once put it, “You do know the friends you make at Harvard are going to help you somewhere down the line. The friends you make at Lewis and Clark College may not, although it’s a perfectly good college.”

Poor Rich Kids

If you had to construct a higher education system de novo, and you were given only two prerogatives—to transmit generational privilege while projecting an air of meritocracy—it would be hard to improve on the current setup. If the emotional well-being of young people were a priority, however, you might want to start fresh.

Students at high-achieving public and preparatory high schools have suffered a historic escalation of stress and burnout at application age. Guidance counselors see college-going students treating stress as a sort of “cultural currency” among their peers. Public health researchers have identified admissions anxiety as a cause of teenage substance use.

Parents surely share much of the blame. But after a generation of running an ever-tighter application gauntlet, some privileged kids don’t need the prodding anymore. “The parents increasingly realize that this is crazy and they resent the way it’s impacting their children’s sleep, their class choices, their anxiety levels. . . . They say we love you and we don’t care where you go,” said Crawford, the former elite admissions consultant. Now, however, some teens have morphed into their own oppressors, and can be counted on always to pressure themselves. “The kids have internalized this and they’re the ones making themselves crazy,” Crawford said.

To which one might respond: boo-hoo for the poor rich kids. You want stress? Try poverty. But elite application hysteria has a side effect that goes deeper than emotional strain: turning privilege into merit. The factors that predispose kids for success—wealth, educated parents, good schools—also point toward a grueling admissions slog. Growing intraclass competition blinds well-resourced kids to their legion of pre-existing advantages.

When socially conscious kids pass through the college-app meat grinder, awareness of privilege can likewise blur under the expectation of actually having to muscle your way into an admissions slot. (This, you’ll recall, was one of the great self-justifying refrains of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his bitterly contested Senate confirmation hearing last year: “I busted my butt” to get into Yale, he complained, apropos of virtually nothing but his own sense of embattled privilege.) You might recognize the vast disparity between your suburban sanctuary and decrepit P.S. 109 a few miles away—but that doesn’t change the fact that the kid a seat over in AP Calculus would tear your throat out to get into Columbia in your place.

One researcher found that at thirty top universities, having alumni relations tripled one’s odds of admission; for children of alumni, the odds are nearly eight times better.

Here is still another crippling paradox of the culture of college admission. Through an application process that gives kids every incentive to highlight tales of personal struggle and adversity in their essays, Crawford said a “quiet resentment in all directions” arises between those with privilege and without. “In the great race, it’s the kids who are better-resourced who have so many legs up it’s silly,” Crawford said. “But it’s very hard to explain that to a single seventeen-year-old who has done everything he’s been asked to do and suddenly has the sense that it’s not going to be good enough, because bad things haven’t happened to him.”

If elite college admission is a ritual of class selection, with a cottage industry of private escorts administering the rites, then here is its deeper psychological function: instilling a sense of desert into the future ruling class. For the investment banker’s son from Phillips Exeter who gets into Yale as a varsity rower, the natural question is, well, how couldn’t you get into Yale. His response: Why don’t you ask all my old classmates who didn’t? As well you might. Maybe they would holler about busting their butts; or perhaps they’d have some ideas about how the entire system is an elaborate lie.

That’s a sentiment that the other 99.5 percent of would-be matriculants would also endorse, regardless of whether they’re aware that there’s a healthy market out there willing to help them get in. The question is whether middle-class families will broadly accept yet another big-ticket expense as an additional prerequisite for the American dream, or else rebel and get behind something like free public higher ed, which has become something of a litmus test among Democratic primary voters. Tellingly, a majority of private college admissions officers in a 2017 poll cited tuition-free public college as an existential threat. If it does come to pass, it might be their own doing. Still, you can always be sure of one thing: Harvard isn’t going anywhere.