Family paid $1.5 million to get student into top US university

Lawsuit reveals price of consultancy provided to Vietnamese woman by Ivy Coach

February 13, 2018
US dollars in a man's hand
Source: iStock

The revelation in 2005 that a leading private college consultant was charging $9,999 (£7,194) each to 10 attendees for a weekend "boot camp" on college admissions stunned and appalled many.

These days, $9,999 may be pocket change in the world of elite college consulting. A lawsuit filed last week by Ivy Coach revealed that it charged a woman in Vietnam $1.5 million to help her daughter apply to 22 elite colleges, as well as seven top boarding schools she sought to attend in high school, before applying to college. The fee was worth it, the lawsuit says. In December, an (unnamed) Ivy League institution granted the daughter early admission.

But, the lawsuit charges, the Vietnamese mother has paid only half the $1.5 million. The family, the lawsuit says, is part of the "international aristocracy who have enlisted Ivy Coach’s premium services".

The lawsuit says that Ivy Coach provided "substantial guidance and effort" to help the daughter apply to Amherst, Dartmouth and Williams Colleges; Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, New York, Northwestern, Princeton, Stanford and Tufts Universities; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the Universities of California (Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego campuses); Chicago, Pennsylvania and Southern California. The legal papers reviewed by Inside Higher Ed reference 22 colleges, but only 21 are named.

The lawsuit states that, at some point in the company's dealings with the Vietnamese family, Ivy Coach became concerned about whether full payment would be made. But the family assured Ivy Coach that, while the mother wanted to see early-decision results before making final payments, the family would honour its contract.

Not only has the company lost out on the value of the contract, but it also lost the opportunity to engage in equally lucrative business with other clients, the suit says. "Ivy Coach also chose to forgo helping other families and students seeking its expertise and guidance – including those who would pay for the full value of the services and benefits provided."

Ivy Coach did not respond to a request for comment, but it does not appear to be disputing the facts of the case. The company posted an article from The New York Post, which first reported on the lawsuit, to its website.

The company recently devoted a blog post to defending its fees, which it didn't detail but acknowledged are far higher than those of other college consultants.

The blog post divides itself into answering criticisms from the left and from the right.

"Our imaginary critics on the left might argue, 'But there are only so many slots in a given class at a highly selective college each year. You’re taking slots away from low and middle-income students by helping students from more privileged backgrounds,'" the post states. "No. Highly selective colleges seek out low and middle-income students. Read a college press release on the demographics of their admitted students and you’ll likely see how the school touts the percentage of first-generation college students, the percentage of students from low-income families, and more." (The post notes that the company does some pro bono work, exclusively for veterans.)

Criticism from the right, the blog post says, would likely focus on Ivy Coach's clients who are from outside the US. In response to what it called the "America first argument", the blog post says, "Our imaginary critics on the right might argue, 'Some of your clientele is international. By helping these students earn admission to American universities, you’re taking slots away from American candidates.'

"Oh? We beg to differ. Every highly selective college seeks to admit students from around the world. These are global universities. They are not regional universities. They seek to attract the most ambitious and intellectually curious students from all corners of the world. And these colleges seek these students so that they can offer them the finest education our world provides. The students can ultimately return to their homelands after receiving their educations to make their countries stronger, to improve the lives of those around them. So colleges want these students anyway. It’s why colleges love to tout that they have students from x number of countries in just about all of their press releases that focus on their incoming classes."

The blog post adds that those concerned about the United States should praise Ivy Coach for being a successful American business. "When so many manufacturers are offshoring their operations, when so many companies are outsourcing American jobs, we are ‘inshoring’ and ‘insourcing’ our operations and jobs, respectively. And if those words don’t exist, then we’ve now proudly created them.

"Clients come to us from all corners of our world and then our folks at Ivy Coach – who are Americans – help them achieve their dreams. We create jobs. We bring money and employment opportunities into America. If only Indiana’s Carrier could say the same."

Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, said that the organisation had kicked Ivy Coach out a few years ago "upon hearing of some of their practices". He said that "in our view there is no excuse for such fees".

Asked about this, Ivy Coach sent a link to a blog post in which it accuses the independent consultants' group of violating antitrust laws by trying to discourage Ivy Coach from charging what it charges. The blog post also mocks the association, writing that "if the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) is the Golden State Warriors of the NBA, well then the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) is a middle school junior varsity team that struggles with layups".

Ivy Coach is part of a small group of admissions consultants that charge extremely high fees, but they are not the norm.

Sklarow's association recently published its "State of the Profession" report, which included information about average fees for services. The report said that the typical range for comprehensive fees (in which a family pays a rate for help throughout the admissions process), is $850 to $10,000. The averages are higher for consultants in New England ($5,400) and the Middle Atlantic region ($4,800) than in the Southeast and West ($4,000) and the Midwest ($4,100).

For those who charge by the hour, the average hourly rate is $200.

While most private consultants don't charge anywhere near what Ivy Coach does, many worry about a system that provides help to those who can pay, while many public high schools have high ratios of students to counsellors. Adding to the concerns are additional trends that favour the wealthy. For example, a growing trend among those who can afford it is to hire consultants to focus only on application essays, while also hiring others to serve as overall consultants.

This is an edited version of a story which first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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