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Thoughts of an Ethical College Consultant on the College Admissions Scandal

The recent national college admissions scandal has placed intense scrutiny on college admissions consultants and families that come from “privileged” backgrounds. As an independent educational consultant, parent, and first-generation college student from a low-income background, I’ve had the opportunity to gain perspectives from different angles.

Thought #1: William Singer was a Bernie Madoff, not an educational consultant

The “college consultant” in question was no more an educational consultant than Bernie Madoff was a financial advisor. They are both scam artists who preyed on others’ aspirations and desperation. What’s worse is we are still reading about “educational consultants” who are being questioned as experts in the media when their own practices are bordering on unethical with their students.

Ethical educational consultants guide students to figure out if college is right for them, help them identify and demonstrate their best qualities, and match them with schools that are not only a fit for them academically and personally, but also financially. Let’s not crucify the work that is really being done, because of some really shameful individuals.

Thought #2: College Donations are a Necessary Evil for Better or Worse

One of my clients told me, “My first college consultant encouraged my parents to make a donation to the school to help me get in. My parents and I were totally against this and refused to do it. I wanted to get in on my own.”

Conversations like this rock my world, because it's hard to believe that someone else in my industry would recommend something like that. But the truth is, it's not illegal--just borderline unethical.

On the flip side, I have learned through my work that students who donate or identify as “full-pay” on their applications do have a slight edge. Colleges need a “full-pay” student to balance out a “scholarship” student. College admissions aren’t proud of this and often remind educational consultants to encourage our “need” students to apply early to not only increase their chance of receiving money but also for admissions. At the same time, I will admit, my “privileged” clients do leverage this by identifying themselves as “not applying for financial aid” to increase their chances of being accepted.

This is going to be an unpopular opinion, but as the first student in my family to go to college, whose parents were a cook and nanny, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college in the first place without other people’s generous donations. Donations to the college or university are necessary--just not to someone’s individual pocket, as in the case of the college admissions scandal.

Donations are crucial because as much as I feel like the middle class gets the short end of the stick in all of this, students that come from low-income, less-educated backgrounds see the most benefit from attending elite colleges and universities. Having experienced it first-hand and personally met my donors, I know I would not have had the opportunities I had inside and outside of the classroom had I not attended an elite university, such as interning with a Fortune 100 company or studying abroad.

Thought #3: Colleges are Not As Unethical as the Scandal is Making them out to be

Having worked both in an athletic office and having helped student athletes apply for elite colleges and universities, I can tell you that what is being publicized does not happen at most schools. While working with a student who was being recruited for an athletic team at a top 10 university, I appreciated how the coach would say that “the review went smoothly with admissions” or how it was “likely” they would be admitted, but that it was never guaranteed, because the truth is, the decision isn’t up to the coach. It’s up to admissions.

From placing prospective students whose questionnaires indicated that their scores did not meet the threshold in a no-follow-up pile to hearing my classmate’s story of receiving a call from the admissions office about how they wouldn’t be able to accept his younger sibling despite his generous donations, I’ve personally witnessed universities stand their ground when it comes to academic expectations in the admissions process.

Thought #4: There’s Still an Army of Us Fighting the Good Fight in College Admissions

While it is not being publicized in the media right now, college admissions, high school counselors, and independent educational consultants are trying to work together to fight the good fight of increasing access and opportunities for students. When I visited Yale last summer, they talked about the students who came from the rural mid-west who were the first in their family of farmers to attend college. Many elite colleges shared how 25% of the students accepted were first-generation students.

While there is a small percentage of independent educational consultants who charge an obscene amount of money for their services, the majority of us charge a fraction of what is being publicized and also take on pro-bono clients, because we also want to level the playing field for those who are most disadvantaged.

Truth is, admissions may never be “fair.” However, there is a great deal of work being done to try to level the playing field...and sometimes it requires actions that can be seen as “unfair.” What we can do as parents though is help empower our teens throughout the process and help give them the best chance they can at a system whose improvements are still in progress.

Anna Ren is an independent college admissions consultant and the founder of Elite Advantage Prep. She is also co-host of the top 10 iTunes podcast on college admissions, College Admissions with Mark and Anna.


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