The Extra Cost of College Admissions

It’s the end of another calendar year, and for most people, that means holiday shopping, festive decorations, and dreams of a heavy snowfall. For about 30,000 high school seniors around the world, however, the end of the year also means decision releases regarding their early applications to the Ivy League.

Admission to the Ivy League (and other top-tier schools like Stanford, MIT, and the University of Chicago) has always been a highly sought-after achievement. A degree from any one of the schools at the top of the United States’ hierarchy of higher education means better odds at admission into top graduate programs, landing prestigious jobs and internships, and becoming the future movers and shakers of society. As more and more people become aware of the fact that attaining a college degree is no longer just an option but a prerequisite for career success, high schoolers’ efforts to get into the Ivy League have increased exponentially.

Rising numbers of applications to top schools and falling admissions rates reflect this fact. During the admissions cycle for the Class of 2021, schools like Princeton, Cornell, and Columbia all reported double-digit increases in the number of early action and early decision applications they received. With the exception of Yale University, general admissions rates at every Ivy League college fell compared to the previous year. Ivy League colleges now regularly boast of admissions rates that bottom out at around 5%, down from admissions rates of around 20-30% in the 1980s.

Part of this trend can be explained by the fact that college is becoming more accessible and affordable to everyone. Schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale use their exceedingly generous no-loan, no-debt financial aid programs as selling points to encourage high schoolers to apply. However, another, and arguably more explanatory reason, is the fact that high schoolers are just applying to more and more schools in response to increased competition. They want to maximize their chances of getting in anywhere, and this in turn increases the number of applicants to every school. As schools generally do not significantly increase the number of students they can accept, their admissions rates decline accordingly.

With Ivy League admissions becoming more competitive than ever, high schoolers must seek out increasingly unique ways to stand out from the other tens of thousands of applicants to the same selective institutions. Traditionally, this meant loading up one’s resume with the gamut of high school extracurriculars - varsity sports, band or orchestra, National Honor Society, student government, etc. Once those options were exhausted, students turned to less readily-apparent factors, such as unique hobbies or mission trips abroad. However, at a time when it feels like everybody has done just about everything and has every award possible in their applications, students are finding it exceedingly difficult to make their profile seem interesting to admissions officers.

This is where college admissions consulting services come into play. In recent years, companies with names like Ivy Coach, Top Tier Admissions, and The Ivy Edge have hit the stage. Founded by former high school counselors, college admissions officers, and educational authorities, these college consulting companies offer to coach high school students on how to best position themselves and their applications for success during the college admissions process for the Ivy League and other top-tier schools. Each of these companies brag of stunning successes for their high school clients on their websites, with lists of all the top-tier schools they’ve helped high schoolers get into, as well as dozens of testimonials raving about the quality of these consultants’ services — services that come with a hefty price tag.

The cost of a college admissions counselor’s services can run into the thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars for the full application process. This compares to an application cost of less than $80 per school — and yet, thousands of students and their families shell out the money for private coaching services each year. When the outcome of the college admissions process can determine so much of the rest of a students’ life, almost no price is too high to pay. In return for these high fees, college counselors walk students through essentially every part of the admissions process, from SAT tutoring to essay editing to how to ace their alumni interviews. Many services are run by adult professionals who have had experience in college admissions, while others, like CollegeVine, are run exclusively by undergraduates at top-tier colleges, as these students have gone through the grueling application and admissions process more recently and are more attuned to the particular demands of each school.

Because of their high service prices, college admissions consultants have been criticized for catering to the wealthy and those who can afford their services, while putting the already-disadvantaged at an even greater disadvantage. According to CollegeVine, the average high school student receives just 38 minutes of college applications guidance from their high school counselors across all four years of high school. Yet, CollegeVine also features at least thousand-dollar price tags for its range of services, leaving one to wonder how they propose to correct that imbalance when their clients are clearly those who can afford their services and who likely attend wealthier public schools with better counseling services.

Despite opinions about catering to the wealthy and those who don’t necessarily need any more advantages in the college admissions process, however, it seems like college consultants are becoming a fixture in higher education. With applicant numbers increasing and admissions rates falling each year, students may find college coaches more necessary with each applications cycle, and college consultants will face higher demand and be able to command higher and higher prices as the process continues to heat up.