Earning College Acceptance, or Buying It?

By , March 7, 2011

I’ve been listening to the radio news, and once again, I’m appalled. Yesterday, the morning host interviewed the author of a new book about applying for college. I won’t provide the book title, or the author’s name. Heaven knows, when one is trying to sell a book, one becomes reluctant to badmouth anyone else trying to do so. But, other than the affability and humor of the author, nothing in the report made me think the book would be worth reading at all.

The book describes the author’s efforts to help his child apply for college. That caught my interested. It lost me when I discovered that the author had paid someone $40,000 to coach his son through the application process.

Let me dwell on that a moment: the family paid someone a year’s college tuition to help the boy get into college!

The price alone completely disconnected my interest. I don’t have that much to spend on such a process, should I ever be tempted to do so. Further, it bothers me that people offer this preparation service, and that other people pay for it.

This indicates that a certain percentage of our nation’s college students aren’t there through their own ability to apply for college—to plan, organize, and execute the process. These people paid someone else to do what they really should be able to do themselves if they ever expect to make anything of themselves in life.

This wouldn’t be so bad if all of these efforts were directed at entrance to a top tier college and university. Paying for privilege and placement may actually be valid experience for those students who intend to pursue careers in our nation’s political arena. But the author’s son sought and eventually gained acceptance to the type of college that, without benefit of any additional descriptors from the author (at least in the interview) is a “party college.”

None of this impresses me. Aly’s unschooling prepared her for high standardized tests scores, not some high-paid “handler.” We worked together as a family to coordinate her application process, relying on our own skills, initiative, and information-gathering abilities. As a result, she got accepted to the college of her choice. In the rank of college selectivity, I believe it would fall toward the less-selective end of the scale, but prestige from exclusivity didn’t appeal to her. The college’s teaching philosophy, curriculum, location, and facilities did. She’s been accepted to the college of her dreams, just like the author’s son. We just didn’t pay $40,000 to have someone else shepherd her in.

I confess, I did urge Aly to apply to Harvard, just to see if she could get accepted. She declined.

“I don’t want to go to the east coast for school,” she reasoned, “so asking to attend without intending to accept seems dishonest.” I wonder what a hired handler would have said to that? And, in light of the alternative represented in the appalling interview, her concern for honesty in applications seems to indicate she’s going to do well in life.

2 Responses to “Earning College Acceptance, or Buying It?”

  1. Mike says:

    I do not necessarily disagree, but would like to bring up a point for discussion.

    I do not know much about your profile, but the article seems to say that you are an educated author who is trying to publish a book. I hope I am correct. With parents who are successful as you are, of course there isn’t any difficulty at all to ” work together as a family to coordinate application process, relying on our own skills, initiative, and information-gathering abilities.”

    What about the children of parents who do not have parents as educated as you are? And those who do not have guidance from their parents due to their weak educational backgrounds or immigrant status? How might an family, perhaps an immigrant family, acquire the knowledge that you have without having prior college experiences or knowledge of the U.S. education system?

    Of course, this is not the case with the author on the radio. Unfortunately, I believe that families with a less fortunate background may have to rely on help garnered from $$ to get into college these days. Wouldn’t it be a terrible if a bright kid who performed well in high school miss out on college do to not knowing or understanding about the application process? High schools rarely educate it’s students about these procedures.

    What is your take on this matter after hearing a bit about my perspective? Would like to hear from you and receive a email notification if you ever do reply ! thank you

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Mike, good question! I agree that the difficulty varies with the student depending on many factors, including parental involvement, ability, and background.

    As an idealist, I’d argue that only those with a personal drive to do so should enter college. That drive should be the determining factor, and will, I believe, drive the process. Even those with disadvantaged backgrounds can and do gain admission on their own merits. They are the ones I’d rather see succeed than those whose families have the willingness and funds to hire a “handler” to pave the student’s way.

    Like most services that professionals provide, the skills and knowledge are there to be had for free by the multitude. Some go out and get it for themselves, others buy it. In this case, there are books from the library that prepare students for standardized testing, on line resources, and other free or inexpensive information caches. Most schools have guidance counselors ready to help any student who seeks it. Many students whose schools don’t provide this service seek out the information on their own. The argument I intended to make in the piece is that college bound students prove their worth to a college by tackling the admission process, not by having Mom and Dad pay someone to do it for the student.

    We live in an information age, where having knowledge is not nearly as important or as valuable as knowing how to access knowledge. This, I believe, helps level the field to a certain extent. Even a newly arrived immigrant student with the ambition to seek out the information he or she desires can achieve their goals, probably even better than an unmotivated child of privilege.

    On the other hand, we have people who will pay more than a year’s private school tuition to see that their kid gets accepted by the school of their choice. In this particular author’s case, that choice was “a school where I can paint my chest, go to games, and drink beer.” Would that they had kept their money, and perhaps left that seat open for a more motivated student.

    I agree with you that it’s a shame that our schools don’t spend more time educating students on the application process. We’re finding it a bit difficult navigating college admissions, just because we’re not exposed to a lot of the newer processes. Today we talked to a college financial aid officer who mentioned a resource she felt would be very useful to us as an afterthought. When we told her we’d never heard of it, she admitted she almost didn’t mention it, because she thought it was too obvious–she thought everyone knew about it!

    And, it’s always a shame when bright, promising students fall through the cracks. Imagine what a better country we would have if we systematically sought out the best and the brightest, and ensured, as a society, that they receive as much education as they want and need? Our places of higher education should not be solely populated by those who can afford to be there, whether they want to be or not.

    I don’t know, Mike, if you’ve read my other posts on unschooling on the blog? You’ll find a lot of the attitudes I’ve expressed here in those posts. I generally feel that if I can do it, anyone can. In preparing Aly’s college applications, we had to go beyond the usual tasks of coordinating transcripts and other information from her high school. As a home schooled student, we had to document her learning in a way that could be easily understood by admissions offices, making a complicated process even more so. After that experience, my patience grows short when I see people cruising by on the easy path, as it were.

    I did publish a book by the way.

    I appreciate you bringing this topic up. It’s good for me to be called to account for the things I say on this blog.


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