Education consultants not surprised by high-profile college cheating scandal

When it comes to families of means, “they know how to get it communicated to the school that if their child is accepted they will be a very generous donor,” said one college consultant.
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Suzane Nazir uses a Princeton Review SAT Preparation book to study for the test on March 6, 2014, in Pembroke Pines, Florida.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

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By Mary Pflum

The indictments of actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman on charges of offering bribes to enhance their children’s chances of getting into top colleges may come as a surprise to “Full House” and “Desperate Housewives” fans. But the news of a complicated cheating scandal involving privileged parents is not surprising to education consultants who spoke to NBC News.

“Parents are willing to do pretty much anything to get their kids into good schools,” said Robert Schwartz, founder of Your Best College Essay, a business aimed at coaching students to write the perfect college admissions essay. “They are hiring consultants to work on every aspect of a child’s college application. Today, it’s not uncommon for parents to outsource everything — to hire coaches for their kids’ college interviews, personal trainers to make them better athletes, tutors to improve their test scores.”

Schwartz said he charges an average of $200 an hour to coach students on how to write essays that grab the attention of college admissions counselors and capture the students' voice. Schwartz said he refuses to write essays for the students whose parents hire him — though he says he’s been offered cash payment by parents on “numerous” occasions.

“Every year, I get a few parents who want to pay me to write the whole thing for the kid,” Schwartz said, noting he makes clear to parents from the outset that he is a coach, not a writer-for-hire. “They’ll say, ‘My kid’s super busy, he doesn’t have time to write the essay’ — and then I’ll know what they’re looking for.”

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Schwartz, who works with about 100 students a year from all corners of the nation to pen the perfect essay, said he “fires” parents and students who expect him to fraudulently write an essay and pass it off as the student’s own work — but says he is aware of many in the burgeoning tutoring and education consultant industry who do.

“Some consultants that parents pay have the admissions person of a given school on speed dial and they’ll call the parent and say, ‘Here’s what we think the kid should do’ and they also know how to get the check written, if that’s what it takes to get a kid into a school.”

The education consultant and tutoring business has exploded into a veritable empire in recent years. According to Global Industry Analysts, a market research firm, the global private tutoring market brings in $108 billion annually.

“I really don’t see an end in sight to the desperate measures these parents will go to,” said Karen Quinn, author of “The Ivy Chronicles,” a book that highlights the extremes parents of young children go to in order to gain admission to New York City’s most prestigious preschools and private schools. “Bribery and fraud has been happening for years.”

Quinn says she’s seen first hand the explosion in parents eager to boost their kids’ opportunities. Testing Mom, the business Quinn co-founded eight years ago, has grown from a few hundred to “a few hundred thousand” monthly subscribers, who pay, on average, $30 a month to gain access to the kinds of sample questions that might be found on school admissions tests.

“We’ve always told parents never to offer money or gifts or anything like that to an admissions director because that could be considered bribery, but we do know that especially with families of means, they know how to get it communicated to the school that if their child is accepted they will be a very generous donor. If people are working with certain consultants, those consultants can find ways to get that information across to schools about their willingness to donate so that the parents don’t have to.”

Quinn says the desperation of some parents is “unbelievable,” noting she is aware of at least one family that got their children into a top university by offering to pay for an entire library — and of other families that boosted a child’s standardized test scores by having an older sibling take the test in the younger child’s place.

Schwartz said he does not know if the news of the indictments of Loughlin and Huffman will dissuade other people from trying to pay their way into top schools. He said he worries about the message the parents’ meddling with the admissions process sends to the very children they think they are helping.

“Long term, it says to the kids: ‘You don’t have to play by the rules. You don’t have to live an honest life.’”