College & Workforce Readiness 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
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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.


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