Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Making a silk purse from a sow's ear?

[Warning: severe sarcasm alert in this post]

Sunday's New York Times had an article about the independent college admissions consultant industry. The article had me from the intro:
The free fashion show at a Greenwich, Conn., boutique in June was billed as a crash course in dressing for a college admissions interview. Yet the proposed “looks” — a young man in seersucker shorts, a young woman in a blue blazer over a low-cut blouse and short madras skirt — appeared better suited for a nearby yacht club. After Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions at Kenyon College, was shown photos of those outfits, she rendered her review.

“I burst out laughing,” she said.

Seersucker shorts? Madras skirt? You have got to be kidding me, or to use one of my daughter's and her teenage friends' favorite colloquialisms, "WTF????" (I'll never admit to using it myself, of course). Any kid stupid enough to be seen wearing one of those outfits to a college interview should be denied admission on the spot on the basis of demonstrating exceedingly poor taste. The fashion show was of course organized by a college consultant, who I am sure has no shortage of clients in tony Greenwich. It is almost as if you can hear the consultant thinking to herself, "How outlandish an outfit can I get these guillible kids to wear as a way to demonstrate their desperation to get into college?" The article doesn't say if she is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, but if so, she should have her membership revoked.

Another quote from Bruce Poch, admissions dean at Pomona:
[There are some] genuinely rational and knowledgeable folks out there doing this work. Some of the independents leave me looking for the nearest emergency shower.

Both Jennifer and Bruce are well-respected and knowledgeable in the admissions industry, particularly among those in selective institutions. Both also have a great sense of humor, and I know have had plenty of experience dealing with these consultants. And on top of it, Bruce is a dead ringer for Ted Allen of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." If you don't believe me check out this picture and this one (picture him with glasses on in this latter picture).

The Times article describes how some of the consultants charge families up to $40,000 to help prepare their child for competitive college admissions and help them get into their first choice college. It describes how the industry has flourished in recent years, growing from an estimated 2,000 consultants to 5,000 in just the last three years, no doubt preying on the anxiety families have about getting their best and brightest children into the most well-known and priciest colleges.

In some respects, this article would normally be a yawner, outlining some of the less-than-honest tactics (and in other cases, outright lies) of some of these consultants. After all, other media have covered this industry and its tactics in the past. But being on the front page of the Sunday Times does merit some recognition, and as my late mother-in-law was fond of saying, "If it's in the Times, it must be true."

There's always the possibility that these consultants will prey on poor families who know little about the college admissions process, and who have no or little access to high school counselors.
And in fact, some of them are starting to develop much lower-priced "products," such as DVDs, to try to expand their markets down the income ladder. I'll admit that I have yet to purchase any of them myself, but most of these sound like they are little more helpful (and honest) than the DVDs advertised on television that teach you how to buy houses with no money down. Don't hold your breath waiting for me to review any of them here.

The reality, however, is that the people spending $15,000 for a "junior/senior" package for their child or even better, $14,000 for a four-day college admissions "boot camp," likely have more than enough money to spend on making little Johnny or Janey look on paper as if they are something they are not, and on getting them into a college they probably would have stumbled into on their own even without the assistance of these consultants. So if they want to spend that money to make them feel better that they're doing all they can to help their children, all the power to them.

The boot camp is run by one of the admissions consultant industry's leading lights, Michelle Hernandez, who according to the article, offers a top-shelf package to families that costs $40,000. Hernandez is not shy with the press, and on her firm's website she proudly displays all the media which she has graced.

Her website displays her stellar credentials for the job:
As an Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College for four years and the academic dean of a private high school in South Florida, Hernández has crafted a unique angle for assisting students gain admissions to the most selective colleges, incorporating her “inside perspective” on the admissions adventure. She is one of a small handful of college consultants with years of hands on admissions experience and a ten year history of helping students through her work.

Dr. Hernández graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1989 and went on to earn a Master’s degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University and a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern. She is married to Bruce Bayliss, former headmaster of the International School in Portland, Oregon. They have two children, ages 11 and 5, two golden retrievers and a Gordon setter. In her non-existent spare time, Hernández enjoys stargazing with her 16 ½ inch Dobsonian telescope, working out and reading obsessively. The family lives in Weybridge, Vermont.

16 ½ inches - wow, that's impressive!

She also displays "Michelle's Statistics," which trumpets the number of her clients who applied to specific universities and the number who were admitted ("1/1 to Carleton College, 4/5 to Colgate. . ." - and in case you were wondering, no, she does not provide "Michelle's Statistics" for Roxbury Community College, but she did have a 100%, 1 out of 1, success rate for Penn State this year). She of course does not tell you, because she does not want you to know and in fact, cannot tell you, how many of those applicants would have been admitted to those institutions without her help. But hey, why take the chance that little Janey won't get into the one and only college out of the 4,000 out there that will make her happy. So best to spend the $40,000 just to be sure.

When questioned about the high fees she charges, Hernandez responded to the Times with what can only be described as one of the most ridiculous and pompous quotes ever recorded on the pages of the New York Times:
“It’s annoying when people complain about the money,” the Vermont-based counselor, Michele Hernandez, said. “I’m at the top of my field. Do people economize when they have a brain tumor and are looking for a neurosurgeon? If you want to go with someone cheaper, or chance it, don’t hire me.”

Okay now, so um, college admissions is like brain surgery? I don't think so, but heck, if it helps her sell herself more, good for her.

As with anything else out there in the marketplace, caveat emptor.

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