Ivy League counseling can cost up to $750,000 — and start in middle school

Ways to Secure a Scholarship as the Cost of College Rises

Ways to Secure a Scholarship as the Cost of College Rises


Getting into an Ivy League college or other elite university requires hard work from a student, including top grades, results, and great essays. But for some wealthy families, it takes a little more to tip the scales in their child’s favor: College consultants who can charge up to $750,000.

The rise of concierge college consultants comes as acceptance rates for top universities have continued to shrink. Only about 3.5% of the nearly 60,000 annual applicants to Harvard’s class of 2027 were admitted—down from about 16% in 1980. Other top schools have similarly shaved their acceptance rates into the low single digits.

“This is the 1% of the 1%,” said Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of Command Education, which charges $750,000 for a six-year consulting package to its clients. “Their biggest priority is their child’s education and health — you can’t compare Harvard to a state school.”

He added: “They want every resource out there. These parents care so much about who their kids are surrounded by. They want quality friends.”

Across the United States, thousands of high school seniors are now submitting their applications ahead of the regular admissions deadlines, which typically fall in early January. But affluent families can start preparing their kids well before senior or junior year, with some recruiting consultants as early as middle school to begin honing their kids’ passions and making a compelling case for top school admissions teams.

It’s more than just bragging rights for these parents, as having an Ivy League pedigree is seen as securing a foothold in an increasingly competitive world. And an elite college degree can pay dividends down the road, according to a recent study by Harvard economists find that graduates of Ivy League and equivalent schools are 60% more likely to have incomes in the top 1% compared to those who did not attend these colleges.

“For high-net-worth families, this is part of their generational wealth planning — planning for their children’s future,” said Adam Nguyen, the founder of Ivy Link, a consulting firm that charges from about $150,000 up to $500,000. “In the United States, we don’t have an aristocracy. It’s been about meritocracy, and the way to achieve social status in the United States is based on education.”

Most American college students attend a school other than an Ivy League institution, with 99% of students choosing this route. And a majority of the nation’s roughly 1,300 colleges and universities accept most of the students who apply, Pew Research Center found in 2017.

Concierge college counseling

Of course, the rich already have a leg up on getting into the Ivy League and other elite schools. So-called “Ivy plus” colleges – the eight Ivy League colleges along with MIT, Stanford, Duke and the University of Chicago – accept children from 1% of more than double the rate of any other income group scoring similarly on SAT or ACT scores, the Harvard economists found.

Such gains reflect the gaping gap between the top 1% of U.S. income earners and other Americans over the past half century, with wealth increasingly concentrated at the top and wage growth largely stagnant for the typical worker. Although a number of factors have contributed to rising inequality, some experts say the skyrocketing cost of higher education and the prevalence of older enrollments at top schools have exacerbated the problem.

The stakes of getting into highly competitive colleges were underscored by the Varsity Blues scandal, a nationwide scheme developed by college counselor Rick Singer that ensnared wealthy celebrities and businessmen. Parents paid Singer to bribe college officials and find ways to cheat on the tests, boosting their children’s scores. Singer was sentenced to more than 3 years imprisonmentand many of his clients also served time.

High-end college counselors say today wealthy students have to work hard and that a large bank account alone is not enough to get into the Ivy League.

“We’re very up front if they don’t do the work, it’s a waste of time and money,” said Rim, who is a Yale University alum. “We’re even getting rid of students. I’m not in the business of wasting time and money.”

So what do these advanced consultants do? First, they often start working with students in middle school because high schools look into an applicant’s history from 9th grade, which means kids need to demonstrate their focus and drive as soon as they enter high school.

“To prepare, to have a strong foothold in 9th grade, you have to start the kid much earlier to build their interest and passion,” noted Nguyen, who is a Columbia and Harvard alum and previously worked in Columbia’s admissions office.

“Worth Every Dollar”

That means talking to a child and coaching them to develop their interests, with Rim noting that his team helped a young woman interested in fashion and beauty build her own YouTube channel and become an influencer in space. Rim said the student was ultimately accepted at two Ivies and Stanford.

They’re on alert at all times, a parent who hired Rim’s firm tells CBS (and who asked that her name be withheld because of the sensitivity of hiring an expensive consultant) and noticed she’ll text to his Command Education consultant at and get an answer in 5 minutes.

“Chris was able to help my son create his own project and was able to help him really develop his entrepreneurial skills,” the parent noted, adding that her son was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, his top choice — while adding that their younger high school-age children now also work with Command Education.

“As you know, applying to college is the most stressful process for the whole family,” the parent said. “I can’t believe some of these acceptance rates.” But, they added, because their son came in their top pick, “Every dollar was worth it.”

“Parents are just nervous”

It’s not just ultra-wealthy families who worry about getting their kids into good colleges — plenty of middle-class families share these concerns, with the added pressure of how to pay for an education that can set you back $90,000 a year, before financial support.

But many families who hire college consultants pay far less, ranging from hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars for their fees. And most start in high school, not middle school, to prepare their children for the process.

“Parents are just nervous,” said Michelle McAnaney, the founder of The College Spy and a former middle and high school counselor who charges from several hundred dollars to about $16,500 for various levels of counseling. “Most of my calls are from 11th graders or last-minute seniors” who need help completing their applications.

Some of that anxiety comes from Gen X parents who applied to colleges when they had much higher acceptance rates—and now are often surprised to learn that so-called “safety schools” are far from it. For example, Boston University now accepts 14% of applicants, down from 54% in 2007.

“A lot [colleges] has become much more difficult to be accepted into,” McAnaney said. “That can be where the families come from when they have this anxiety.”

Pupils in elementary schools

Erika Kerekes, an essay coach in Los Angeles who works with mostly public school students, noted that one challenge is that current seniors were in 9th grade during the first full year of the pandemic and lost a lot of school time and extracurricular activities as a result. And many have never had to write the type of personal essay that is part of college applications.

On top of that, big city public schools may have one guidance counselor serving hundreds of students, meaning they likely don’t know the kids as well as those in suburban or private schools or those on staff, she said.

And Kerekes, as well as other consultants and parents, noted that having a third-party expert can help avoid friction in family relationships during a stressful time.

“The parents are concerned about making sure the kids are okay during the process,” Kerekes said. “It’s a very difficult time for them—they know the stakes are high, they’re taking heavy class loads, and they have things to do besides college admissions. They feel like this is a mountain on top of regular responsibilities.”

In McAnaney’s experience, parents also turn to consultants to work with their child on a stressful task with unpredictable deadlines. “They say, ‘We need your help to make sure they get that essay done on time,'” she added.

That was one of the motivations for parent Marcia Zellers, a marketing executive in Los Angeles, who noted that she felt conflicted about paying several hundred dollars for a college counselor for her daughter, who attended a public high school and is now a student at Cornell.

“I felt guilty that I was feeding the university’s industrial process,” she noted. “But the benefits were, for something that was affordable as it was, why not try to get a little extra help? I don’t think the parents should be too much in that process because it’s a very stressful process and for a parent being involved isn’t great anyway.”

Finding a good fit

Parents and consultants for middle-class families also noted that part of the work involves finding the right fit for a student — and it might not be an Ivy League college. Meg Rosequist, 53 and an attorney in Los Angeles, said she paid several thousand dollars for a consultant to help her son apply to colleges two years ago. He is now a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I liked him because his approach was, ‘There are a lot of good schools out there, let’s find a good fit,'” she said, adding that her son did not apply to any Ivy League colleges.

The counselor also helped at a time when her son, like other students, was coping with his high school’s shutdown, which also ended some extracurriculars. Eventually, her son co-founded a Model UN program during the pandemic, she noted.

As for consultants to the 1%, it’s also about helping students find their passions and possibly a path in college that will lead them into their professional lives.

“It’s not just about grades and test scores, that’s a given,” Nguyen said. “A place like Columbia looks for a talent, a niche — a passion and something that helps the student contribute to the school in a meaningful way.”

Still, Nguyen noted that the advantage wealthy students can gain isn’t always fair. “Overall, having resources certainly helps increase your odds of entry significantly more,” he said. “And there’s no easy answer to that from where I’m standing.”

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