Bribery scandal puts college counselors on edge
For up to $80,000, Michele Hernandez Bayliss can steer your child to some of the best colleges. She helped one student parlay his passion for the environment into lobbying for a state anti-emission law that eventually passed and earned him a seat at Harvard. She urged another student to direct her love of poetry into a community healing project that won her a national honor and admission to Princeton and Harvard.
Hernandez Bayliss, who is co-president of Top Tier Admissions and starts working with students in eighth grade, will also handle the more mundane tasks of private college counseling: suggesting the right classes and best internships to make a child shine on a college application.
But there’s a line, Hernandez Bayliss said. When a potential client brazenly asked her how large a check he needed to write to Stanford University to ensure his child got in, Hernandez Bayliss walked.
“That’s not how it’s done,” Hernandez Bayliss said she told the father.
The arrests this week of 50 people, including a private college counselor, in what authorities have called the largest admissions scam they’ve ever prosecuted has put the spotlight on the $2 billion industry aimed at getting high schoolers into elite colleges.
The alleged scheme pulled off by William “Rick” Singer, a California-based college counselor, was audacious and vast, involving test cheating and bribery, celebrities and Silicon Valley titans.
But the case has also put those who work in the murky world of private college counseling — where there are few rules, money can flow unfettered, and promises can be grand — on the defensive.
“Yes, I’m worried,” said Mark Sklarow, chief executive officer for the Independent Educational Consultants Association. “But at the same time I think it’s a time to distinguish the ethical counselors from the unethical.”
The case illustrates many of the weaknesses in the system, counselors said.
The private college advising industry is largely unregulated, with no requirements for licensure or credentialing.
While the trade association has rules regarding how counselors market their services, how much they charge clients, and their years of experience, only about 2,000 of the more than 12,000 private college counselors nationwide are members, Sklarow said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Singer was not a member, Sklarow said.
Costs can vary widely too. The average overall fee for college coaching in New England is $5,400, according to the association.
But some companies charge tens of thousands of dollars, and still others more than $1 million.
The marketing of the services can be questionable. Some companies advertise guaranteed admissions to a college of the student’s choice, a promise that can be difficult to deliver. Several lure clients with names that suggest an elite school pedigree, such as Ivy Coach, IvyWise, and Crimson College Consulting. Singer’s firm, based out of California, was called The Key.
And many private counselors are former college admissions officers, promising to use their inside knowledge of the selection process and their connections to give students the edge.
Still, the scale of Singer’s alleged scheme has taken even some college counselors by surprise.
“I’d like to believe that there’s not this much corruption in the system,” said Jay Bacrania, cofounder of Signet Education, a Cambridge-based college counseling company.
Bacrania said he had never heard of Singer.
“This kind of thing is done very hush hush,” he said.
Singer pitched himself as a 26-year veteran of the private college admissions business and wrote the 2014 book “Getting In: Gaining Admission to Your College of Choice.” According to court documents, he allegedly helped scores of students cheat on their ACT and SAT tests by paying off test proctors and administrators at testing sites. He helped hundreds of students falsely burnish their applications and funneled millions in bribes from their parents to college athletic coaches for guaranteed seats at elite schools, a scam he called the “side door” to admissions.
“What we do is help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school,” Singer bragged to a client in conversations overhead by federal investigators, according to court documents. “If you said to me, ‘Here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school,’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done.”
Singer pleaded guilty to federal felonies earlier this week. He could face up to 20 years in jail.
College counselors said the more common ethical lapses in the industry involve consultants who write more of a student’s college essay than the student, or those who use their longstanding relationship with admissions officers to call and lobby for individual clients.
Some promise and charge for more than they can deliver, said Alan Houghtaling, the founder of Evolve Tutoring & College Admissions Coaching.
“People struggle with the line, because there’s money changing hands,” Houghtaling said.
Increased competition at elite colleges for a small number of slots has made parents anxious and fueled the coaching industry, experts said.
The online application process has encouraged more students to apply to more colleges. And universities, wanting to appear more selective, want more students to apply.
“It’s driven by fear,” Houghtaling said. “Even at the upper, upper levels. If I went to Harvard and my wife went to Harvard and my son didn’t get into Harvard, what does that say about us?”
Counselors acknowledge that even paying a few thousand dollars for tutoring is beyond the budgets of many families, exacerbating inequality in higher education.
But families with the means have always had more options, counselors said.
Those with money can move to wealthier school districts where their children have access to more advanced classes, or they can enroll them in private and preparatory academies, ensuring that they’ll get more personal attention from counselors charged with getting students to the best colleges, counselors said.
And for generations, wealthy families have made multimillion-dollar donations to colleges for buildings and programs with the expectation of gaining their children admittance. Colleges have long defended the practice as a trade-off that allows hundreds of students to benefit from a new library, science center, or by getting financial aid from donor gifts.
But even the price of that donation has gone up, shutting out all but the uber-rich, said Sklarow, with the counseling association.
“If you went back a generation, a $1 million gift will get your kid in,” he said. Now “a $1 million gift is going to get you nothing.”
Still, the scandal has shocked many of her clients, said Hernandez Bayliss.
“It’s never been a level playing field. . . . It was never fair,” she said. “Nobody wants to feel that it’s that unfair.”