George Washington University president Stephen Trachtenberg was alone in his office one spring day in 2006 when he received an unexpected phone call.
Former president George H.W. Bush, more than a dozen years out of office, was calling from sunny Kennebunkport as he watched boats sail past. He had a favor to ask.
A young man working for him had just been rejected from George Washington. Bush could see the disappointed lad from his seat — he was up in a cherry picker painting the flagpole on the storied Bush compound. Could anything be done, Bush wanted to know.
“You don’t get everything you want, Mr. President,” Trachtenberg told him. But when he hung up the phone, he went down to the admissions office.
It had been a close call, an admissions employee told him. She wasn’t sure why the applicant hadn’t been admitted.
Trachtenberg called the president back. The decision would be reversed. An acceptance letter would be FedExed to the young man the next day.
“On the one hand, look, university admissions ought to be on the merits, and people have to be very careful about corrupting the entire institution,”
Trachtenberg said in an interview. “On the other hand, in the human discourse there is going to be a certain amount of give and take and, in the end, admissions is not a science.”
Few people are as lucky as that flagpole-painting boy, but the truth is, it never hurts to be well-connected, or wealthy, when applying to elite colleges.
The Varsity Blues admissions scandal unfolding in Boston’s federal district court has exposed how tech titans, financiers, and Hollywood stars bribed and cheated to get their children into college. But what the glare of the scandal has obscured is the vast ecosystem of other ways that wealthy people get a leg up, all of which are perfectly legal.
“There can be no separate college admissions systems for the wealthy,” US Attorney Andrew Lelling said last month in announcing the first wave of indictments.
Oh, but there is.
Simply being born to a graduate of an elite university gives a child an immediate advantage she can try to deploy 18 years later. As early as her sixth grade year, her family can — for a price — reserve a spot on an exclusive college counselor’s agenda, years before the counseling even starts. That counselor might eventually use connections to help get her into an elite, private high school, where she’ll have access to more resources than her public school peers can imagine.
During the summers, her parents might send her to a soccer camp run by a college coach or an academic program run by university professors — both of which can give her an in. Her parents’ alma mater might offer her help in applying to school — help that’s unavailable to less well-positioned applicants. And if her family happens to make a large financial contribution to the school — all the better.
Access to a good college education has long been sold as simply a question of merit, but a review of the myriad ways wealthy families help their children shows the admissions system is inherently structured to favor those with the money or ties to claim the inside track.
The notion of a meritocracy was quite literally put on trial last year in a challenge to Harvard’s admissions process. The case offered proof of the advantages that athletes and children of alumni and donors enjoy.
“It’s better to be born rich than smart in America,” said Anthony Carnevale, professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, who studies the economic disparities that affect admissions.
Shelly Borg saw this firsthand. She spent more than two decades as a guidance counselor in the Boston Public Schools, where students faced everything from food insecurity to homelessness, and yet she still tried to help them win college admission somewhere.
Then she went to work for the Newton public schools. The district was just down the road but a world away.
In Boston, a counselor could have as many as 300 students. In Newton she had just 185, only a quarter of whom were high school seniors. Nationwide, just a third of public schools have a full- or part-time college counselor, compared to 75 percent of private schools, according to a recent report.
“There is definitely inequality, just by counselor caseload alone,” Borg said.
Every fall in Newton, as many as 100 college representatives come to recruit, visits widely advertised around school as a way for students to get face time with representatives from top universities. In Boston, Borg can remember a few small fairs, but only state and local schools attended.
The Newton public schools have more SAT prep classes and even a special program to help first-generation and low-income students as well as students of color. There are seminars for parents, and teachers often assign students to write college admissions essays as part of English class.
When that’s not enough, wealthy parents can hire a private counselor to give their child personalized help. These experts offer strategies and connections to help increase a student’s chance of admission.
Rachel Rubin started Spark Admissions in Chestnut Hill seven years ago, working with families in the Boston suburbs. Her firm’s services start at $6,000 for 10 hours of planning for eighth-graders and high school freshmen and go up to $27,500 for a 55-hour comprehensive service package. For a fee, she will reserve a spot for a student as early as sixth grade.
Rubin helps students identify what they are passionate about, which helps them write strong essays and choose high school classes and summer internships. Often, she plays the unofficial role of mental health counselor. The students she works with are often extremely anxious, and they face immense pressure from their parents and peers to be admitted to a top school, she said.
Help from a counselor
Hannah Witts, a Canadian student who attended a private boarding school in Pennsylvania, knows firsthand the difference a good counselor can make. The first time she applied to college, she was unsure what she wanted to study and ultimately opted to take a gap year instead.
She reapplied with the help of a counselor from McMillan Education, a Massachusetts firm similar to Rubin’s. The counselor helped her channel her feelings into a powerful essay about why she loves movies from the 1980s, which has a lot to do with the fact that the teenagers in those films don’t seem nearly as stressed as teens today.
“It definitely changed everything,” Witts said about working with the counselor. “For the first time, I was talking with someone who I felt really understood what I was going through,” she said.
And it worked: Witts will attend Vassar College in the fall.
Witts got another piece of important advice from that counselor — advice that many families don’t have the luxury to heed: She applied to Vassar “early decision,” meaning that she submitted her application early and her acceptance was binding. Many private counselors say that at least half their students choose this option because it promises a better chance of acceptance and they are notified much sooner.
This option, however, is impractical for students who rely on scholarships, because they want to wait to see which college offers them the most financial aid.
According to a recent report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, more students apply early than in the past, and more of them are accepted. More than half of the most selective schools have early-decision options, the report found.
Some institutions rely heavily on early decision. Williams College, Vanderbilt University, and Middlebury College fill half or more of their freshman class through early decision, which often includes recruited athletes and children of alumni, according to data collected by Jeff Levy, a private college consultant in California.
Brennan Barnard, a director of college counseling and outreach at the private Derryfield School in New Hampshire, said that because so many students apply early, he now spends his late summer writing college recommendation letters and by early December most of his seniors have sent off their applications. Many visited campuses and started test preparation programs as sophomores in high school.
His students view early decision as their best shot at getting into their top-ranked school because, with fewer applicants, the acceptance rates are higher. It’s an opportunity for families to exert some level of control on an admissions process that has become increasingly unpredictable and distorted by pressure to get into one of just a few schools ranked highly by US News and other publications.
“They’re gaming the process to get in,” Barnard said. “It’s this culture of fear we’re living in. It’s gotten worse since the economic crisis in 2008 . . . there’s this kind of panic that the options are dwindling.”
The sports camp strategy
Aidan Clarke, 18, has been playing soccer ever since he can remember, and he wanted to continue to do so in college. But when he started approaching college coaches, he was surprised at the advice he received.
“I got tons of e-mails that said, ‘Come to our camps, we want you, come to camp,’ ” said Clarke, a high school senior from Rochester, N.H., who will be attending the Richmond International Academic & Soccer Academy in England this fall.
Clarke attended a few camps — at a cost of up to $500 apiece — before calling it quits.
“It comes across as, this is the way to get noticed by college coaches, and as a parent you want your child to be seen and have lots of options,” said Dan Clarke, Aidan’s father.
But eventually, the Clarkes said, they realized that they were wasting their money. The coaches offered little instruction, they said, and Aidan was simply “camped out.”
Such camps have turned into big business for coaches and a major draw for anxious parents who hope to curry favor with athletic recruiters and boost their sports profiles — and who can afford the expense.
Dartmouth College’s women’s soccer coach, Ron Rainey, runs a four-day camp that costs $775 and draws about 360 students every year to the Dartmouth campus. Sometimes, Rainey said, there are waiting lists.
MIT’s squash coach operates his own popular weeklong summer camp for students as young as 10. It costs $1,900. He also takes a group of more experienced players on a two-week excursion to Corsica, France, and Germany, where they bask on sandy beaches, take dips in an infinity pool with hillside views of the rocky landscape, and practice squash and compete in two tournaments. Families pay $6,650 for the international experience, and the hope of an admissions edge.
MIT and other college officials insist that these programs don’t guarantee admissions. Yet many of them do dangle the possibility of a leg up. In its promotional material, Rainey’s camp points out that some participants have gone on to play for Dartmouth.
“This is a summer camp; our emphasis is to help develop players,” Rainey said. But, he noted: “With every camp, there is an element of watching players play from recruitment purposes.”
But the experience is largely out of reach for low-income students. NCAA recruiting rules bar college officials from providing discounts or scholarships to these camps, so most participants cover their own costs.
Rainey points out that coaches rely on other recruitment methods to ensure they get the best players, including traveling to tournaments and watching videos that applicants send.
Still, college sports recruitment generally favors the well-off and those with the right social connections, said Kirsten Hextrum, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma who interviewed athletes at an elite, unnamed university, for a research study.
Fewer than 1 out of 200 students athletes met their state’s definition of low income, compared to more than one in four students on the entire campus, Hextrum found.
One student in Hextrum’s study had mediocre grades in high school, so he enrolled in a boarding school for a postgraduate year. Once there, he switched from football to rowing, a sport more likely to catch the eye of elite colleges. And with the connections of the school’s crew coach, he was admitted into the elite university as a member of the crew team — even though he had never rowed a stroke prior to his first campus visit.
Other students in Hextrum’s study took advantage of informal meetings with coaches, attending camps and traveling to campuses across the country, to pitch themselves to coaches as potential recruits. Several parents hired private coaches to help their children develop a specific skill, such as pole vaulting, to set them apart, Hextrum found.
“What was surprising to me was how much strategy was involved,” she said.
The legacy and donor edge
Academically inclined students use similar strategies, spending summers attending pre-college programs hosted at elite universities.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, among the most competitive business programs in the country, has run a four-week summer curriculum called “Leadership in the Business World” since 1999. Each year, Wharton accepts about 160 rising high school seniors into the program, where they attend college lectures, mingle with professors, visit businesses, and stay on campus.
The program costs $8,000, although some financial aid is available.
In its early years, the program also came with a hidden perk: A representative from Leadership in the Business World participated in Wharton’s admissions discussions and could lobby for students, said Elizabeth Heaton, a former admissions officer at Penn who is now a vice president of College Coach, a college counseling company owned by Bright Horizons, the child care giant.
But admissions officials stopped the practice more than a decade ago after they realized that it gave a select group of applicants an unfair advantage, Heaton said.
Still, the program remains a gateway to Penn for some students. In 2015, 30 percent of the students who participated in the Wharton summer program gained entry into the university, according to the college’s student newspaper, while only 10 percent were accepted from the general pool of applicants.
To be sure, colleges in the past few decades have made a historic effort to recruit a more diverse student body. Elite schools send admissions recruiters to forgotten corners of the country and offer generous aid packages that allow very poor students to attend without taking out loans. Many have also made efforts to help first-generation students feel more at home on elite campuses.
But students with longstanding ties to universities still receive special treatment.
At the University of Virginia, for instance, the children of alumni are offered the services of a liaison who meets with the student and the parents twice, reviews a student’s academic record, and offers advice for applying.
In 2018, UVA admitted nearly half of its legacy applicants.
At Duke University, the alumni association promises “advice and assistance” to the children and grandchildren of former graduates, according to its website.
Until recently, Brown University’s fund-raising office encouraged faculty members to meet with and write recommendations for applicants tied to wealthy donors or alumni. Brown also offered special admissions counseling for children of alumni, faculty, and staff, but that program will end this summer.
And as the trial over Harvard’s admissions policies last year made clear, university officials are acutely aware of students whose families have been donors and who can be counted on for future generosity. In 2014, for example, Harvard’s tennis coach e-mailed the admissions dean about the family of one applicant whose family “over the last 4 years has given us about $1,100,000.”
Court documents also revealed that Harvard’s admissions officials kept a separate “Z list” of applicants whose families were generous donors or tied to influential people, and offered them a one-year deferred admissions program — a side door in for those who might, on the merits, have faced rejection.
University presidents say they try to stay out of the admissions thicket, but they are often asked for favors. Former Northeastern president Richard Freeland said that when he got such calls, he sometimes asked the admissions office to give the applications of well-connected students a close read — but he never meddled in decisions.
“Great private schools exist because of the efforts of a lot of people — donors, governing board members, and employees — and therefore, for their children to get a close look, but no more than a close look, is legitimate within that framework,” said Freeland.
Donna Shalala, now a US representative from South Florida, served previously as president of Hunter College, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Miami.
“The whole thing was tricky because you take calls from old, old friends who needed a favor,” she said.
Like Freeland, Shalala said she didn’t meddle. But if she learned such a student was slated for admission, she would give the person a heads up. If there was no chance, she would advise the family to send the student elsewhere, then apply to transfer.
That’s not to say college officials don’t sometimes put their thumb on the scales to help a well-connected student. Sometimes they even manage to use such awkward situations to their advantage.
When Trachtenberg, the former George Washington president, called George H.W. Bush on that sunny day to give him the good news about his young employee, Bush offered to return the favor.
If there was anything he could ever do . . . the president began to say. Without hesitation, Trachtenberg told him what he needed: a commencement speaker.
And so it was that, a few months later, Bush and his wife, Barbara, delivered the address. Both received honorary degrees.
“They were the best commencement speakers we’ve ever had,” Trachtenberg said. “In the end, you say to yourself, it was actually a good deed, on all sides.”