By Colin Mo
There’s a phenomenon in the American college application system. Students will pay $20,000 or more for college consultants to help them navigate college applications and land a spot in their desired school, and it seems that these high-paying clients are primarily of Asian descent.
The $20,000 price tag is for a full package deal on the KOSATs website , a college consulting service in Taiwan, but such services can be more expensive in the United States. Three Asian students who used California-based company ThinkTank Learning’s services in 2010 and 2011 say the full package cost them $30,000, with one receiving a guarantee from the company or their money back.
The price quotes given by TTLearning range from $75,000 to $150,000, depending on the target school that the student is interested in, according to a consultant at TTLearning, who wishes to remain anonymous for job security. The Fiscal Times reported in Nov. 2014 a similar price tag for the New York-based company IvyWise.
The all-inclusive package deal offered by college consulting companies generally includes some standard services: monthly meetings with a college consultant to update and discuss the students’ status, to devise optimal ways to package the applicants, and to access the company’s SAT preparation classes. The consultant helps students review their essays, fill out applications and resume, prepare for interviews, and more.
For students unwilling to pay nearly a semester’s worth of college tuition before they’ve even reached college, cheaper, smaller packages exist.
In a student’s first meeting with a consultant, the consultant considers the student’s “career skills, interest assessment, grades/test score assessment, extracurricular activity planning, course planning,” according to a college consultant working for TTLearning.
Does it work, given that a significant number of college-bound hopefuls are paying for the service? On the websites of various Chicago-based college consulting companies such as North Shore Consulting and RTM College Consulting, testimonials abound, along with the identity of schools the students enrolled in. IvyWise boasts their success rates on their website, comparing their students’ acceptance rates with average acceptance rates.
None of the companies provided data on their clientele’s ethnic demographics, citing nondisclosure agreements, but TTLearning’s consultant stated, “I don’t personally have any non-Asian students nor have I seen any around but [where I’m] located in Millbrae [California]…is well, Asian.”
The consultant also noted that she thinks non-Asians may be just as interested in the service, but may not be aware of college consulting services.
Though non-Asian high school and college students may not have heard of the college consulting services, those we spoke with were not surprised it exists, only that the price tag was so high.
Steven Ma, the CEO of TTLearning, has stated in an interview with paloaltoonline.com that he targets Asian students “because we didn’t have a marketing arm that catered to the non-Asian population, our channel revolves around the Chinese and Korean media.”
Ma added that he looks for “high Asian concentration and high-income zip codes” when scouting for new locations.
For the Asian students who have gone through the process, however, some say they didn’t like it.
“Personally, I didn’t like it,” said one UC Irvine student, who engaged a college consulting service in 2011. “It was too expensive and also I don’t think it’s an effective system. Just repetition and rote and lots of extra classes.”
“They made me do most of the work really,” said a New York University student, who also paid for a college consulting service in 2011. “And at the end, when I got in, they wanted me to write about how ‘great’ the experience was with them.”
A UC Riverside student who used TTLearning’s service in 2012 said, “They just recommended the UCs that aren’t too hard to get in, asked what major I wanted and helped with the college app process. It was super expensive, but if someone didn’t have anybody else to help them, TTLearning would be the best choice.”
The primary reason these Asian students say they used the service was “parents.”
The UC Riverside student said, “It was just the Asian parents being overly worried, but I would still recommend it. There was no one else to help me, and they give you unlimited classes and a college consultant and tutoring hours. But it is a little way too expensive.”
“My parents wanted that tier one Ivy League,” said another. “So they paid.”
“I think I would have got in anyways, but they wanted that sense of security,” he added. That “sense of security” cost his parents $40,000 in 2011.
For those students who “would have got in anyways,” Kevin Yao, the CEO of KOSATs, said, “there are a lot of things they don’t know about, especially proper time management and negotiations sometimes.” KOSATs also offers extra services to students looking to apply for scholarships, for a fee, but Yao noted that “we charge more because they will get scholarships back.”
Admissions staffs at colleges have not tried to stop the services, though they caution prospective students about involving third-parties in their college applications.
For college-hopeful high school students, this does not necessarily mean that the chances of getting into a top-tier college are lowered because someone else can afford to pay for a consultant. Richard O’Rourke, of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s admission’s office, suggested that it should be more than enough to seek your own high school counselor for help on college applications.
“Getting into a pretty good college is a big deal, so I see the appeal for people who can pay for it,” said Morgan Wolfe, a sophomore at Evanston Township High School. “I don’t think it’s a rational thing to do, but I get it.”
Samuel Pascal, another sophomore at the same school, said that “it’s geared towards people that have that much money to spend, and therefore making entering college that much easier to do.”
But for the students who wonder if this negatively affects those who aren’t capable of paying such a large consulting fee, Wolfe said, “If it’s only kids who are pimping out their applications that are getting in, then there is a problem, but I don’t think that’s the case.”
It seems that none of the top-tier schools are keeping track of how many of their students may have gotten in with help from a third party. Perhaps they do not wish to know.