Families & the Community Opinion

I Moonlight as a Private College Counselor. Trust Me, the Inequity Is Baked In

There are plenty of legal ways the college-prep industry sells advantage
By Mary Finn — March 14, 2019 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This week, the FBI arrested parents who broke the law by committing fraud and bribery to get their kids into elite colleges. The vast majority of students applying to college don’t have parents who commit admission-related federal crimes. But, there are myriad subtle and often undetectable ways that money buys advantage and leads to college admission.

I’ve seen firsthand the legal but inequitable ways parents can buy access and opportunity in the college-application process. As an administrator of programs for the San Francisco school district, I’ve spent my career working with and on behalf of students who will be the first in their family to attend college. As a side gig on the weekends, I’ve also spent the past decade consulting with upper-middle-class families who pay me upwards of $5,000 for private college counseling.

The college-preparation industry, from which I benefit financially through my side gig, sells advantage every step of the way. Need to boost your SAT scores? Hire a private tutor. Does your child’s activity list look anemic? Sign up for a month-long “volunteer” program in Tanzania for thousands of dollars.

The only difference between the two applicants is one had the money to hire me."

The first thing I say to a prospective parent in my private college counselor role is, “I want to let you know that I won’t write your child’s essay, and I don’t have any special access to elite college-admission offices.” A not insignificant percentage of parents decide to look elsewhere after I set these boundaries.

I spend more than 30 hours in total with each of the students whose parents do hire me. I help them select their schools, pick appropriate and compelling essay topics, refine their essays through multiple rounds of editing, and make sure all applications and financial-aid paperwork are completed on time.

Many of the first-generation students in the programs I manage, on the other hand, often go to schools where the average student-to-counselor ratio makes such personalized attention impossible. Nationwide, the student-counselor ratio is 482 to 1. High school counselors are professional, well-intentioned, and hardworking but they are typically unable to offer individualized college selection advice and application management to a cohort of hundreds of students.

When my private-client students send me the first draft of their essays the writing is a similar caliber as the first-generation student essays. Yet, I provide my clients multiple rounds of edits and comments. The final versions of their essays are not a true reflection of the quality of writing the students can produce on command by themselves. Instead, the submitted essays reflect the quality of writing that comes from having access to a paid editor.

The first-generation high school seniors in the programs I lead in my day job get lucky when they end up with an English teacher who assigns college essays as a class assignment. The English teachers often have class loads of 120 students and their edits, by necessity, aren’t as in-depth as those I give my private clients.

While it is true that I don’t complete a student’s application or write his essays, it is also true that I am paid to hold the student’s hand and make sure every deadline is met, each typo is cleaned up, and all final writing is college-ready. When all is said and done, my private-client students submit vetted and polished applications. These students may appear to be more highly qualified than their first-generation counterparts, but this is an illusion. The only difference between the two applicants is one had the money to hire me.

I don’t begrudge the parents who hire me or who pay for these advantages in the college-application process. The process is unnecessarily complicated, and many parents feel they need support. What they are doing is legal and baked into the culture of so many upper-middle-class communities. The majority of parents I work with are equity-minded liberals who think they are just doing right by their children.

Most of the first-generation students and their families enrolled in the programs that I lead have come to believe college can be a ticket to economic mobility. They get brochures in the mail from colleges proclaiming a simple but alluring promise of meritocracy. Work hard, play by the rules, and there just might be a spot for you on our campus.

But, it is high time we were honest about the inequity of the college-application process and that we accept the reality of who gets into elite colleges and why. The admitted are not always the “best and the brightest,” and they aren’t always the most deserving. Instead, many admitted students are simply the fortunate beneficiaries of access and opportunity purchased by their parents during the application process.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Privacy & Security Webinar
K-12 Cybersecurity in the Real World: Lessons Learned & How to Protect Your School
Gain an expert understanding of how school districts can improve their cyber resilience and get ahead of cybersecurity challenges and threats.
Content provided by Microsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Families & the Community How to Help Parents Understand Students' Academic Needs Post-Pandemic
Transparency and authentic engagement can get everyone on the same page.
3 min read
Families & the Community Why Aren’t Parents More Worried About Declines in Student Achievement?
Most parents think their students are doing OK, which could stymie districts’ recovery efforts.
6 min read
Image of a parent helping with homework at home.
Families & the Community How to Respond to Parents' CRT Complaints
Four experts have advice for district leaders on how to craft their messages on diversity, equity, and inclusion lessons and initiatives.
5 min read
People protest outside the offices of the New Mexico Public Education Department's office on Nov. 12, 2021, in Albuquerque. The education department proposed changes to the social studies curriculum that critics describe as a veiled attempt to teach critical race theory. Supporters say the new curriculum, which includes ethnic studies, is "anti-racist."
People protest outside the offices of the New Mexico Public Education Department on Nov. 12, 2021, in Albuquerque. The protesters were reacting to proposed changes to the social studies curriculum that they said were a veiled attempt to teach critical race theory.
Cedar Attanasio/AP
Families & the Community These Groups Are Pushing Back Against 'Divisive' Parents' Rights Policies
A coalition of education advocacy and family support groups wants to redefine what constitutes parents' rights.
3 min read
Illustration of adults and child in a classroom.
A-Digit/DigitalVision Vectors