The FBI’s recent takedown of college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer and his 49 coconspirators focused a light on something we already knew. The college admissions process does not take place on a level playing field.
Clearly Singer took shortcuts. He used bribes to enlist corrupt SAT proctors and collegiate coaches. His rich, famous, and accomplished clients were complicit in the scheme. They readily handed over fees as high as $500,000 to $1.5 million to guarantee their child admission to their preferred school. In so doing, they were willing to violate both the public trust and the sacred trust of their offspring.
But, don’t get distracted by the eye-popping dollar figures. They were high but not uniquely exorbitant. Clients of legitimate education consulting firms, such as New York City-based Ivy Coach, are routinely forking over $950 an hour, $300 to $2,500 for specialized application review services, and even upward of $1.5 million for a five-year engagement — with absolutely no guarantee of selective college admission.
Middle-income families also are in the game. Maybe they’re not calling Ivy Coach, but they are investing in specialized camps, elite sports programs and individualized coaching, college entrance exam prep, essay writing coaches, and academic tutoring — anything that might better position their college-bound student. Increasingly, they also are turning to personalized college admissions consulting, fueling annualized industry growth rates of 4 to 5 percent and leading to 8 percent year over year expansion of the number of boutique and independent education consulting firms.
Why is this? Even before the first tuition bill, why are parents willing to spend so much to get their kids in?
I see us complain of rising tuition costs and express concern over outsized student debt burdens. We argue that college may no longer offer the return on investment it once did. And, we conclude that college isn’t for everyone, that there are great jobs that don’t require a college degree, so we should do more to just get kids to work.
I know that’s what we say. But if that’s what we mean, why Operation Varsity Blues?
Well, it’s because we — the college-educated — know that while college may not be for everyone, for those who are able to “get in” and “get out” successfully, a college experience is about much more than just a B.A. or a B.S.
Each year, when the 300 soon-to-be graduates of the Philadelphia Education Fund’s College Access Program convene for their final seminar, Know Before You Go, they hear it directly from the low-income, first-generation college students who preceded them.
From the candid alumni panel discussion, our students — largely low-income and first-generation college goers — learn that college will expose them to a new level of academic rigor, not easily accessed in their neighborhood high schools. They learn that unlike in high school, their college professor’s primary aim is not to help them over the graduation finish line and as such they must claim control of their own learning, their own education. They learn that their college degree connects them to a robust alumni network that can provide links to job and career opportunities. They learn there are resources on campus to help them develop the skills they will need in their career — research, writing, networking, and job finding. Finally, they learn that their college experience is not just an academic experience, but a social one — teaching them the language, culture, codes, and social cues of the middle class.
While Operation Varsity Blues may have been revelatory to many, for the 6,000 ninth through 12th graders we serve at the Philadelphia Education Fund, and the thousands more being aided through the city’s robust network of nonprofit college access providers, it was not. They already know that college admissions may never be a level playing field, but they also know that were they to forgo their chance to go to college, a job alone might never provide them with the future opportunity to at least try and level the playing field for themselves and for their own children.