Ultra-Rich Buy Ultra-Luxury Counseling to Get Kids Into Harvard
With 24/7 tutors and lots of hand-holding, high-end consultants are taking the admissions race to the next level.
By Francesca Maglione and Paulina Cachero | September 15, 2023, at 6:00 AM EDT
Sooner or later, every parent asks Christopher Rim the same question: What will it take to get my kid into Harvard or Yale?
His answer: $750,000.
That’s Rim’s going rate for advice on landing a coveted spot in the Ivy League for students who want to start college prep in the 7th grade. The price is more than twice what it can cost to actually attend one of those eight elite schools.
But, for those who can pay, Rim and his team at New York-based Command Education will serve as a sort of white-glove college concierge service – “mentors” who will groom an overachiever, prod a slacker, finetune a B+ here or an A- there, curate extracurriculars and otherwise buff a high-school CV to a high Princetonian gloss.
Elite universities have long been stocked with children of the rich. But as admissions mania spirals – only about 3% of applicants get into Harvard these days – the ultra-wealthy are taking the win-at-all-costs gamesmanship to five-star heights. Enter a new wave of luxury college consulting services that all but guarantee its clients will get into one of their dream schools. All-inclusive packages — sometimes costing well into the six figures — can start prepping kids before they even enter high school.
“These are very savvy business people and families — money is no object for our clients,’’ Rim, 28, said. “Frankly, if they never have a job or go to college, they’re going to live better than most people. What we’re doing is building motivation for students that have every resource.”
It’s hardly news that wealthy parents try to buy every edge for their kids. But the new class of high-end consultants — think McKinsey & Co. for 17-year-old clients — is more evidence of the lengths to which people will go to gain access to elite institutions (the Varsity Blues admissions scandal showed how, for some, that can include breaking the law.)
The backdrop for all of this, of course, is the age-old anxiety about getting into an elite school. The college application process has gotten even murkier in recent years, as acceptance rates plummet and parents search for anything that can give their kids an advantage. And even as millions struggle with student debt, and debate grows about the cost of going to college, being accepted at an Ivy (or a handful of other top-tier universities) remains an important status symbol for wealthy students and their families.
How crazy has this gotten? Rim said a parent at New York’s Trinity School — a $64,000-a-year Ivy League-feeder — once offered him $1.5 million if he would agree not to work with any of his child’s classmates (Rim declined).
AcceptU, another college consulting company, once received a call from one anxious father – or, rather, father-to-be. The man had just learned that his wife was pregnant and wanted to inquire about hiring a consultant, according to co-founder and chief operating officer Stephen Friedfeld.
As over-the-top as that might sound, the fact is, if you want to go to a prestigious university, being rich helps. A study released in July by a group of economists at Harvard found that children from families in the top 1% — an overwhelmingly White cohort — were 43% more likely to be admitted than students from the middle class, and those from the top 0.1% were more than twice as likely to get in.
Some high-end consultants have heard concerns from alumni parents about attacks on legacy admissions, which have ramped up recently. Critics call it “affirmative action for the rich” — a cutting rebuke now that the US Supreme Court has gutted race-conscious admissions programs at colleges across the country. And so, as summer fades and the annual application season begins — early-decision applications are often due November 1 — the admissions industrial complex is kicking into gear once more.
Before the pandemic, Rim worked out of offices in the Beaux-Arts Bergdorf Goodman Building in Midtown Manhattan, not far from the Plaza Hotel. Today, he likes to court parent-clients at the sumptuous Aman Club (a members-only club, where the initiation fee runs $200,000). If that won’t do, Rim will discreetly drop by a client’s home — whether it’s a condo at 15 Central Park West or on Miami’s Fisher Island — for a modest $10,000 deposit.
Forget dog-eared SAT books and parent-proofread essays. These days, people of means can outsource years of college prep to consultants and their build-an-Ivy-Leaguer programs. A big challenge: How to stand out in today’s overflowing pool of highly credentialed, slickly marketed applicants?
Rim said Command Education helped one high-schooler patent technology for sneakers that charge batteries. It helped another link up with a major sporting goods company to provide tennis gear and refurbish courts in underserved communities.
Leelila Strogov, an MIT graduate and chief executive officer of AtomicMind, a college consulting firm in Manhattan, characterizes her market as “the billionaire set” whose kids sometimes require tough love to put in the work necessary to get into an Ivy League school. While ultra-wealthy families that can make a sizable donation still have an advantage in the admissions game, Strogov said the odds are stacked against “regular rich” applicants who must distinguish themselves from high-achieving peers.
“Our college admissions system is broken — it’s gamified,” said Strogov. “I’ll use whatever resource or angle I can to help our clients. I’m in it to win it.”
AtomicMind assigns every student-client a head adviser for “executive-function coaching.” Together, they stay on top of applications, while some 150 tutors — ranging from debate coaches to research specialists — help burnish academic and extracurricular records. The going rate is $500 an hour, but it jumps to $3,000 if you want to work directly with Strogov. Demanding clients could spend as much as $85,000 a month.
The company also specializes in “positioning” students of Asian descent. That includes steering an East Asian student, who now attends Columbia, away from competitive STEM fields towards a humanities major to boost the student’s chances of admission. (This cohort was at the center of the recent Supreme Court cases, in which the plaintiffs argued that high-achieving Asian American applicants lost out to less qualified students.)
At New York-based firm IvyWise, founded in 1998 by Kat Cohen, bespoke programs to guide students and anxious parents through the application process start at $28,000. The company typically starts working with students in 9th grade, pairing them with counselors who previously worked in college admissions, many of them at prestigious institutions such as Stanford, MIT, Princeton and Yale. They also offer services for students as early as kindergarten. Cohen has nearly doubled her staff since 2020 in order to keep up with demand.
What does all of this buy? A lot of hand-holding and practically 24/7 access. At AtomicMind, some students take up to seven hours of tutoring a day to strengthen their academic profile. Counselors help students write speeches for student government races and craft proposals to create new clubs. One time Strogov said she even bought a student a suit when he showed up in sweatpants for a college interview.
“We’re hired by the parents because they can’t give that time to the kids,” Strogov said. “We’re an extension of them.”
Beyond selling a white-glove service, these firms tout higher-than-average acceptance rates for their clients. Command Education claims all of their students who applied early to Harvard in the 2021-2022 admissions cycle were accepted. IvyWise advertises a 48% admission rate for clients at Duke University compared with 6.6% for all applicants. AtomicMind boasts 100% acceptance rates for its clients at competitive schools from Harvard to Northwestern.
Worth the Cost?
Not everyone is convinced college concierges are worth their price. According to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, an industry group with nearly 2,800 members, the average application package — which stretches from 10th grade to the day the acceptance letter arrives — runs about $6,700.
The group’s president, Mark Sklarow, likens the business to Botox. Sure, you can spend many thousands to smooth a wrinkle at a luxury spa. Or you can pay several hundred at a less fancy place. The Botox is still Botox, Sklarow said.
“If you want to buy elitism or a concierge service, that’s a choice,’’ Sklarow said. “There’s not a whole lot of difference between spending half a million dollars and $8,000 on a college consultant.”
Matt Suescun, an 18-year-old college freshman from New Jersey, couldn’t agree more. He applied to 21 schools using free online resources and a $25 SAT prep book. He got into 10 schools.
He isn’t a “legacy” with alumni in his family. Neither of his parents attended college. And he certainly didn’t use a high-priced consultant.
He’s heading for Cambridge, Massachusetts, anyway.
“At the end of the day, it’s still luck of the draw that I got into Harvard,’’ he said.
Originally published on Bloomberg. on September 15, 2023