The Legitimate World of High-End College Admissions
As demand has surged, some clients are paying $1,000 an hour
Douglas Belkin | March 13, 2019
William Rick Singer allegedly charged clients hundreds of thousands of dollars to use illegal means to get their children into top schools. Some college counselors are charging their clients just as much—but their business model is perfectly legal.
Entrepreneurs promising to boost the chances of gaining admission to top-tier schools are now charging as much as $1,000 an hour, fees typically associated with white-shoe law firms.
“Five years ago, my rate was $410 an hour and I was fully booked. I raised it to $550, then $690 and then last year $1,000,” said Hafeez Lakhani, a college consultant based in New York City. “My rate reflects demand.”
Christopher Rim, a recent Yale graduate and founder of Command Education, also in New York, has a top rate of $950 an hour. He said one family from Chicago paid him $200,000 last summer to work with their twin daughters.
“My clients set the price,” he said.
Top-end college consultants and tutors have long charged a premium, especially on the coasts and particularly in New York, but the recent jump to $1,000 an hour comes as the competition has ramped up to get into the nation’s most elite schools. Last year, Harvard University accepted 4.6% of applicants, down from 8% in 2008. Over the same decade, Princeton fell to 5.5% from 9.3% and Stanford fell to 4.3% from 9.5%.
There are now about 17,000 college consultants, up from about 2,000 in 2005, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a private organization that sets standards for members. Of the 17,000, 5,000 work overseas.
Some counselors are concerned that people will become more cynical about the college-admissions process after this week’s scandal. With Mr. Singer acting as accused ringmaster, wealthy parents face accusations of bribery and bank-rolling fraudulent test scores to get their children into schools including Yale University, Stanford and the University of Southern California.
When any student gets into a top school, others are “going to wonder what that family may have done to get in,” said McGreggor Crowley, a counselor at IvyWise, an education-consulting company based in New York and former admissions officer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The average cost is $25,000 for one student at IvyWise, but some parents pay six figures for intensive support throughout high school, test prep and application help, says a spokeswoman.
Counselors offer wide-ranging services, including help for students on their application essays and advice on which extra-curricular and summer activities can bolster their resumes. They might also give parents strategic tips on how to donate to a school, including considerations on whether to fund a new building or pay for an endowed chair.
Last summer Mr. Rim, helped a student from Chicago who was trying to organize fun runs for children in poor neighborhoods but very few people were coming to the races. So Mr. Rim and his team built the young woman a website, then helped her write a letter to a sneaker company which sent her 500 pairs of shoes.
“We helped her realize her passion,” he said.
Mr. Rim has no formal training, but after he was admitted to Yale from a public high school in New Jersey with what he calls less-than-perfect grades (his high school grade point average was 3.8) his younger friends asked him for help with their college applications. He worked with them from his dorm room until he began getting referrals and started to charge for his services.
The college-counseling market was once dominated by former high-school guidance counselors, As demand has risen, a more highly credentialed class of entrepreneurs has entered the market: Counselor with PhDs, JDs and other advanced degrees along with former Ivy League admission officers are now typical.
The field has grown in recent years as anxiety has increased among middle and upper middle class families about getting their children into a top school, said Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association..
“There isn’t one state where this is licensed, anybody can hang out a shingle,” he said. “The most typical thing I hear is someone will say, ‘I got my kid into Bryn Mawr so now I want to do that of for other people.”
Allen Koh started Cardinal Education 15 years ago and said his most expensive package is $350,000, though he has had international clients pay him up to $1 million for taking care of their child while they are in boarding school in the U.S. “At that point, it’s almost like concierge service,” he said.
His expertise includes explaining how to work with development officers to give money to schools. He says he has learned that giving must be carefully timed and offered well before a child is about to apply. “You don’t ever want to insult the development officer by offering money right before they are applying, that would be considered a faux pas.”
Mr. Koh says he doesn’t advertise and that all his business comes through word of mouth.
“A lot of our clients are in tech, or they are in venture capital. A few are in hedge funds. They are networked all over the world,” said Mr. Koh. “If we get someone’s boy into Stanford or Harvard or MIT the parents are fielding hundreds of calls from friends congratulating them and asking them how they did it.”
Rachel Rubin, who has a graduate degree in education from Harvard University, founded Spark Admissions in Boston. Her least-expensive hourly rate is for her largest package—55 hours for $27,495. “I’m sure we could double our rates and still stay busy,” she said. “But we don’t want to do business like that.”
Jason Lum, a college counselor in Minnesota who charges around $200 an hour, says anybody who is charging $1,000 an hour is simply unethical. “I think anyone who charges that much is just taking advantage of the insecurities of the parents who are increasingly lost in a very complicated system,” he said.
Originally published in the WSJ on March 13, 2019.