January 26, 2024

How higher education consulting agencies have a stronghold on college admissions

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July 22, 2014. Cambridge, United Kingdom. Front court of the Emmanuel College in Cambridge University

Picture by: Diliff | CC BY-SA 3.0

For many high school graduates, the college admission process is an essential feat for them to tackle. Many students dream of getting into the top U.S. universities, known by the metonyms of the Ivy League or HYPSM, as they are lauded for their prestige and top-tier education.

Yet, even the Ivy League with the lowest admission rate – Cornell University – has seen its statistics almost halve from 20.7% in 2012 to 10.7% in 2024.

Getting into a top university is getting astronomically more competitive.

The U.S. college admission process is tedious, consisting of a main Common Application essay, supplemental essays, AP or SAT grades, as well as the student’s overall portfolio condensed into the format of a ‘5 Honors + 10 Activities’.

Not only are students expected to be well-rounded in their academics, but they should also boast leadership talents, an ardent belief in community service, and a unique character flair.

Above all, they should demonstrate why they possess traits that make them a good match for the schools they are applying to in their polished essays.

It is tough ticking all of these boxes, which is the reason why many parents turn to college consulting services to help their children gain an edge in such a competitive pool.

Manned by former admission officers or higher education experts, these agencies offer services such as choosing majors, choosing schools, boosting extracurricular portfolios, as well as helping to craft personal statements.

As the college application process is always regarded as opaque, sometimes the extra nuggets of information are all the student needs to stand out from their peers.

But this comes with huge costs – the Ivy Coach, a renowned college consulting agency, notably charged clients up to $1.5 million for its overall package. For other agencies, a 6-year package at Command Education can also cost up to a hefty $750,000 – nurturing their clients’ passions from as young as middle school.

With the median household income earning up to an upper bracket of $141,568 per year and not accounting for existing spending, such a lavish consulting fee can only be afforded by upper-class households.

Coupled with the social benefits of being an Ivy graduate – having a median income higher than that of an average student by 47%, and a network of equally bright talents, many upper-class households are willing to boost their children’s opportunities of getting into the top universities by opting for a hefty consulting package.

After application results are released, many agencies boast their collated figures of student offers – a well-known agency Crimson Education claims that their students are 4.5 times more likely to get into a top university with their services.

Not only are the success rates of these agencies high, but they also streamline the application process for the student, and such ambitious promises therefore contribute to the burgeoning demand for college consulting agencies.

The global online tutoring service market – including college admission consultant services – in 2022 was valued at $7.69 billion and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.9%, until 2030, accelerated by factors like increased competition. 

With more students turning to college admission consultants for an increased chance of being admitted into top universities, the playing field is no longer even. In contrast, the support afforded to students who cannot afford such services is often meager, in the form of high school counselors who cannot provide personalized feedback, or friends and family otherwise unschooled in the application process. 

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the admission process was never equal in the first place. Legacy applicants are given prioritized admissions, and international students applying for financial aid may be put on a back hold compared to a student who does not need aid. 

The more wealthy the family is, the more likely they can afford the training for their child to be a recruited athlete – which significantly increases their chances of getting into Ivy League schools as well. 

Almost half of Harvard’s recruited athletes have a combined family income of over $250,000, which makes up the top 5% of the nation. With these combined factors, the quality of college education a student from a certain strata can access is significantly limited, making the process less meritocratic. 

There are a few alternatives. College admission consulting services are only sometimes exclusive, or astronomically expensive.

Student A, who signed up for a package at Stoooges Education, an agency based in China, stated that the package she signed was affordable. “Not all agencies offered year-long packages.” She said, “Some did provide simpler packages such as polishing your statements at an affordable price. That was what I looked for predominantly.”

With the bulk of the application being on essays, being able to access quality, affordable guidance to write can also provide them with a significant advantage.

At the same time, most colleges are recognizing the effects of how college admissions have been skewed by such intergenerational wealth and privileges, therefore actively taking action to increase the socio-economic diversity of their student bodies.

The aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to end race-conscious admissions at US Colleges was an intense debate on legacy admissions – culminating in prestigious colleges like Wesleyan College and Carnegie Mellon University to end legacy admission altogether.

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In recent years, many elite colleges have been reaching out to students in rural areas of America through the STARS outreach program.

By offering free college consulting services and virtual sessions on college programs, it aims to raise rural students’ access to higher education, aiming to improve their chances at college.

The ethics of using private college admission consulting services is still contested, as it has shaped the college admission playing field such that opportunities can never be parceled out equally.

Regardless, the industry itself will continue to burgeon as many parents are willing to go the extra mile for their children to get into an elite college, which possibly entails the first step to a successful life. After all, college consulting services are helpful to anyone who can afford them, but it has been made too exclusive to families belonging to the top socioeconomic class over the last few years.

For now, what is optimistic are the actions taken by universities and individuals to democratize higher education services. For instance, Leland, an online marketplace for coaches, was started by Stanford graduate John Koelliker in hopes of providing personalized and affordable college coaching services to students.

More college admission officers are also speaking on Ted Talks to give more insight into the arcane college admission process, ensuring greater access to information for prospective college students. Such efforts can hopefully restore higher education to its untainted ideals – level opportunities for all to attain their full potential.

Written by:


Chenxi Zhang



Born in 2005, Chenxi lives a relatively comfortable life in Singapore and wishes to pursue Mathematics in her university studies.

Despite being a pure science student, she enjoys reading books extending from political nonfiction to epistolary novels, with 84, Charing Cross Road being one of her all-time sentimental reads.

During her free time, she may be found watching movies, playing table tennis, or playing chess.

Edited by:


Timur Boranbayev

Economics Section Editor

London, United Kingdom


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