Prestige School: At What Cost?

Are Prestige Schools Worth It?

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How much would you be willing to pay to help your kid get into an Ivy League School?

Clients of Dartmouth admissions counselor turned college applications consultant Michelle Hernandez are comfortable with $40,000. We spoke to Hernandez on the show this morning.

She bragged that one of Dartmouth's admission committee's favorite essays this year was written with her guidance. Starting in ninth grade, she shapes everything from students' hobbies to their college essay topics. And it seems to work — last year 24 out of 29 of her clients got into Ivy leagues. In a separate interview, the dean of admissions at the University of Chicago is not impressed. He told us he considers what she's doing to be "fraud."

Tutoring, or trickery? What do you think?

As part of all this, we asked two Day to Day staffers - one a graduate of St. Olaf College, another a graduate of Yale - what the role of prestige played in their thinking when it came to deciding where they would go to school.



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Thank you for making the point about the two of you sitting side-by-side. I think students are much better served when they find a school that fits their passions and interests. It's not the prestige that provides a good education; it's your professors and your environment. I went to a tiny, unknown college in Canada for my undergraduate education, but the level of intellectual engagement I found there inspired me, and I went on to earn my master's degree from the University of Chicago.

Sent by Christine | 1:54 PM | 9-25-2008

I'd have to say, from my experience, that many times it doesn't matter where you attend university but your capabilities and drive after you've graduated lead you in life. Like Alex, I too attended community college and started out a less than model student. But, ten years later I graduated from Georgetown with a Ph.D. and haven't looked back.

Sent by Bil R. | 1:57 PM | 9-25-2008

I find this completely rediculous. I recently graduated from Drake University (Des Moines, IA) as an English Literature major. One of the most valuable things that I learned throughout college is to be individualistic in what I chose to study. I found that I was talented in writing and enjoyed the analysis of text. The value of college was finding myself in what I chose to study, not necessarily getting bogged down with the, "Oh my I need a job!" folks who fretted and worried themselves sick about what employment they will have once they graduate. It seems Like Hernandez is creating these types of people who lose their ability to truly think for themselves and promote their attributes to people on their own. There is nothing wrong with couselling, but especially working with 8th and 9th graders, with parents obsessed with living their lives through their children, for $40,000 is ridiculous. Kids this young should strive to continue education, but should know that there are mulititudes of ways to have success and that a degree from Harvard offers them nothing if they can't prove to people that they're an individual.

Sent by Jeff Behrens | 2:01 PM | 9-25-2008

I applaud Mr. O'Neill's response. I have a 15 year-old who I am determined will make his own way in college and will enjoy the satisfaction of getting accepted based on his own merits. I can see a day where the admissions essay will need a statement that it was written by the student only and that's very sad for higher education. The fact that Ms. Hernandez feels the need to make sure colleges don't suspect her involvement suggests that it is underhand at best, and fraud is perhaps not too strong of a word. This is another perpetration of parents not letting their children work for something on their own. Yes, college is important, but credibility and your own self worth is even more so.

Sent by JR | 3:05 PM | 9-25-2008

I think this is awful! The kids who truly need this kind of help are the ones who could never afford the $14-$40K.

I'm also curious as to how much these kids like this process and how much it is forced on them by their parents. My parents never pushed us in a certain direction. I went to UCLA on my own merit and then a far less prestigious school for my MBA. My sister went to community college and nursing school. I know that both of us would have been miserable having a woman in our business for 5 years!

Sent by Jenn | 3:29 PM | 9-25-2008

I managed to get into a top school without the help of private schools or tutors. My SAT prep amounted to sitting down with a book from the library and practicing math problems. My essays told of my unique life experiences, what I could bring to the community, and why I thought I belonged there. If you can't get into a school based on your own work, then you will certainly lag behind your peers once matriculated.

Furthermore, cheating is eroding the character of our society. It is happening all over college campuses. Left unchecked, it translates to cheating on the balance sheets of our corporations. It translates to fraud in mortgage lending practices. Shame on the parents who hire this woman - parents who are teaching their children that cheating and fraud are acceptable as long as the prize is large enough.

Sent by MP | 3:39 PM | 9-25-2008

Half the people who wrote here are hypocrites. You say how much passion and finding a college that fits you matters and then you graduate from the Univ. of Chicago or Georgetown.

COME ON! How can where you go to school NOT matter?

If you look at it as an investment, than it may be the best money you ever spend. Saying you graduate from PO-DUNK medical school vs. UW medical school is compeletely different. Whether you get in with help or not, you still have to graduate and most of us who couldn't get in, probably could of handled it.

This is a great topic, but a bit naive if people who are 40 are going to comment on the job market that is affronting 25 year olds graduating from college today.

Sent by Joe | 3:53 PM | 9-25-2008

I teach at a small liberal arts school in the Midwest and have just discussed with my students today the criticisms being rallied against their generation - the so-called Entitlement Generation. If this doesn't underscore the trends characteristic of this group, I don't know what does. Parents are willing to go to the ends of the earth to give their children, well, whatever they want. This is unconscionable - and these parents should be ashamed. And then we can address the contributions these parents are making toward the growing divide between the America's upper and lower classes ... My gosh, $40K to help your kid get into college!?! I guess these people are paving the way for the next generation to walk unfettered into the upper echelons of this divided nation. What a mess!

Sent by EButler | 3:59 PM | 9-25-2008

Fraud? Seriously. Who doesn't enlist help for resume reviews? Who doesn't get help to proofread cover letters? Doesn't it show maturity to get help when you need it? So long as plagiarism is involved, this should not be an issue.

So, not all kids can afford the $14,000 to get help? Then the U of C should change their admissions process so it has evaluation methods that can't be coached - have applicants interview or complete impromptu writing exercises.

Sent by pmh | 4:41 PM | 9-25-2008

I am shocked that Dean O'Neill would call Michele Hernandez a "fraud" on national radio and then go on to say he edits kid's papers and his "best friends are college consultants who help kids with essays."

Sent by Larry Smith | 4:46 PM | 9-25-2008

I was accepted to Cornell University three years ago the old fashion way. While I am proud of this accomplishment, I declined Cornell's offer and am happily attending Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I am appalled that any parent would enlist Ms. Hernandez 'help' and then have the audacity to even think they are providing their child with a service. Luckily, my parents value my opinions, encourage my growth, and do not need to boast about my successes at cocktail parties to maintain their self worth. This is a gift greater than any $40,000 admissions counselor can provide

Sent by tb | 4:48 PM | 9-25-2008

I too want to thank you for making the comment about sitting side by side. If prestige is what leads to a good life, I've been going about mine all wrong. And "never heard of St. Olaf"? Oh my!

Sent by Ann | 4:53 PM | 9-25-2008

This is pretty pathetic. Any parent who has 40K to blow on pushing their spoiled offspring into an ivy league is doing neither their kid or their kid's future employer or future co-workers any favors. Know who they're helping? Michelle Hernandez. Lemme see....40K times 25 students. I didn't have to graduate high school to know who the smart one is.

Does Michelle Hernandez tell these 40K-per-kid parents that company CEO's don't necessarily graduate from IL colleges? Here is a TIME mag article,8599,1227055,00.html Sure, many companies won't hire unless you're from a prestigious college, but that's just playing into the paradigm. (Alright alright, many a Harvard grad are super smart and terrific people, but I'll bet those folks worked for it themselves.) I won't go on to list successful people who don't even have *any* college degree at all.

Last point: we may, in the near future, see Sarah Palin as VP or possibly president, most famous CEO in the land. She sure ain't no ivy leaguer. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Sent by Seagrace | 5:08 PM | 9-25-2008

I loved the response of Ted O'Neill, who said, "so be it," as far as kids not making it into the college of choice (or is it their parents' choice?).

I was the first person of my family to make it through college; I worked my way through, and my parents supported me in ways other than paying tuition. My boyfriend chose not to go to college. One of my friends has said that the worst thing she did was go to college to make her parents happy before she was ready (she still hasn't finished).

Going to college for college's sake, or a certain college just because it is highly ranked, is not the "be all and end all" of guaranteed success. I would check with those parents forking over thousands of dollars for this "boot camp" and see what they think success is, and what they want for their kids - if it's "happiness," then they should reevaluate how they are supporting them.

Sent by sb | 5:28 PM | 9-25-2008

I fall against the prestige claim in this debate. I know that my mother for a time attended one of the most prestigious schools in her field that ultimately couldn't fulfill what she needed as a student. She was studying vocal performance at the University of North Texas, but having entered as a junior she couldn't get any of the more respected vocal teachers she wanted. Then she started shopping around for a teacher the would best fit her rather than a whole university and found it in a smaller program at the University of Dallas. Her instruction was better despite the fact that UD is not famous for music in all the ways that UNT is. That and I know I've met a wonderful classicist from St. Olaf.

Sent by Steve | 5:37 PM | 9-25-2008

Is prestige worth it? From a career perspective in relation to a certain level of jobs in business and professional fields, it matters an awful lot. I am in the career counseling field. My bias: help my young clients get job. That's it. I don't care from a personal level whether they went to a name brand school or not. But, from years of experience, I can tell you with absolute certainty that those who had Prestigious U on their resume had a far easier time getting interviews and landing jobs than those who went to Podunk U.

Is prestige worth it from a career perspective- totally!

This is a different question than whether the school "fits" the student from an experiential level. Certainly, students should strive to have that fit. Sometimes that fit may not be with a prestigious school (assuming the student has a choice to attend the prestigious school). Then, the student and parents who are investing 100-200k can have a discussion about the trade-offs involved in the decision.

Those who say "prestige is not worth it" are usually self-referencing and in defense of their own path. Delighted if that path worked for you. Please don't advise others about the issue because you could hurt their career prospects later.

Sent by John | 6:16 PM | 9-25-2008

To clarify, where did the cheating and fraud come in? I think I was 100% clear that I edit/guide students in their writing - never in my 10 years have I written an essay for kids - sure, there are unscrupulous consultants who do that, but I certainly don't - I have no idea where Mr. O'Neil got that and then in his next sentence goes on to say that he thinks editing and helping students with their writing is fine - that's all I do and because I was an Assistant Director of Admission, I know how to direct kids to write essays that will help them - is that fraud? And I work with plenty of scholarship kids, so the whole "Who has $14K" is bogus. And since when was it a crime to earn money in the U.S anyway? Finally, is it so wrong to invest $14K to get into a school like U Chicago where room/tuition/board is over $200K? Let's remind ourselves how expensive these schools are in the first place. The funny part is, a lot of my students scrimp and save to pay me, get into HYP and the like, and then get huge financial aid packages -- everyone is happy at the end of the day. My background is teaching and education - helping kids with essays is not cheating any more than SAT tutoring is cheating - come now! Since when was spending $ on SAT prep a crime? When will we all admit the SAT is a bad test?

Sent by Michele Hernandez | 7:16 PM | 9-25-2008

I completely agree with Jenn's comment below- the families who really need this kind of help CAN'T afford $14K-$40K! That is completely rediculous! And why are we asking 8th graders where they want to go to college? I mean, am I the only one who thinks this is borderline rediculous? I was raised in a very wealthy Southern California beach town and I had several friends in high school whose parents had more money than they knew what to do with. THESE are the kinds of families that put entirely too much pressure on their young kids (as young as 10!), and can afford to write one big check to Harvard. If the families that use this service can afford to pay $40K for a 4 day program, they can afford to pay their kids way into an Ivy League (ie. donate a building).

I think this is as unfair as the outrageously priced SAT private tutoring that these same families are utilizing. This will only widen the SES gap that is already gaping between low-income (or even middle class) families and those who parents are CEO's.

Ms. Hernandez---how about you do some pro-bono work and donate your time and services to the children who really need this.

Sent by Julie | 7:27 PM | 9-25-2008

Julie -- I do plenty of pro bono work - thanks for asking (so easy to shoot arrows without doing any investigating). Why would you assume I didn't? Fees are set by the market (and as I'm filling up 3 years early with waitlists, clearly my price is in line with market conditions and in fact is not the highest around of those at my level) One of my most indigent students (who paid a greatly reduced fee) not only got a full scholarship to prep school and later Princeton, but just won a Rhodes Scholarship -- his "investment" paid off in spades with over $150K of scholarship/grant money. I repeat - there is no fraud or cheating involved in advising and guiding kids and working with them on their essays. Contrary to what many think, my goal is to get my students into the best school that is also a good FIT -- I say exactly that to anyone who asks, it's in my contract, etc... On the prestige front, I have to agree with John - sure, there are many who succeed without going to top colleges (and many who go to top colleges who fail!), but there is no doubt that it is easier to get top law/medical/business schools from the top universities. And even so, I encourage the "match" way more than the name in all my students.

Sent by Michele Hernandez | 11:14 PM | 9-25-2008

Match Ms. Hernandez' interview to the headlines of the day, and you can explain a lot. When we teach a young adult that it is right and proper to cheat one's way into college, then we set a moral compass that allows the graduate of that Ivy League school to cheat on Wall Street or in government service. Ms. Hernandez is simply abetting the ascendency of those who tomorrow will sell hollow mortgages and trade oil contracts for sex.

She should be ashamed of herself.

Sent by Tom Hanscom | 12:28 AM | 9-26-2008

I think it is not just the very wealthy who do this, but middle class families who hope that by spending money to help get their kids into a top name school their children will not only have a great education, but will have a better shot at jobs, make key connections while there and be able to use valuable alumni networks all their lives. That's hard to argue with when those schools are only accepting a small percentage of their applicants.

I just get frustrated that colleges can not identify slickly packages kids. They say they can, but clearly, that is not the case. Over the years, I have had a number of parents tell me they have written their kid's essays for college, and even for prep school. When an accomplished attorney writes an essay that is supposed to have been written by a teenager, can't someone tell the difference? There must be some difference in tone or wording to set off a warning bell.

One last thing, I was at a well known college in Boston this summer and was surprised to realize that the people sitting next to me were touring colleges all round America and Canada - with their private college advisor! I wonder what that cost them. It might make $14,000 for 4 days seem cheap.

Sent by Sunny | 1:27 AM | 9-26-2008

I do wonder if the results of Ms. Hernandez's work will just bring us the kind of entitlement behavior that echoes in the economy as these same clients later game the corporate world and bring us the next Enron or the next banking collapse.

As an educator and one who has spent 30 years working in college admissions, I continue to be amazed and simultaneously disgusted by Ms. Hernandez's self-promotion and the frequency with which she is cited by reporters as a valuable source. She isn't a simply a social critic or contrarian, but something much more troubling. She is viewed by her colleagues in admission and counseling essentially as an anti-Christ of college admissions because she oversteps ethical boundaries with relish.

Her practices and representations are reviled by both admissions officers and even by those who work in her field as independent counselors.

Hernandez apparently convinces her clients that they have bought results and, perhaps she has but hard evidence that these students gain admission to places which otherwise wouldn't have worked hasn't ever been deeply examined. Apparently, that's not the nature of her "sell".

Dean O'Neill is absolutely on-target in his comments and in his choice of the word "fraud". Lines are crossed with impunity by Ms. Hernandez and she offers a disturbing representation of teaching very bad lessons and essentially offers as her service a manifestation of the anti-meritocracy.

I know this is the kind of topic that is of interest to NPR listeners but really, go to a more dignified and respected source than Hernandez.

Sent by BJ | 12:14 PM | 9-26-2008

With or without the benefit of a highly trained, fee-based College Admissions consultant, students and families have excellent free resources available online to help supplement their in-school college and career preparation/guidance counseling. One such free service is available through the National Research for College and University Admissions made possible through support from college admissions departments across the country. The non-profit organization,NRCCUA, has a free student/parent online college planning program available at that helps students connect to colleges that are a best fit for their unique student profiles (including academic strengths, interests, location preferences, college types and campus environments). I agree with many of the postings above, that a great college experience is not a branded commodity and that college and future career success can only be defined and measured on an individual basis. In my opinion, the first step in achieving true success (realization of one's personal goals whether they are income/prestige related or more holistic)is an unfettered college exploration that will introduce students to opportunities that they may have not previously discovered.

Sent by Melissa Freeman | 12:32 PM | 9-26-2008

Please! Anyone who thinks where you go to college doesn't matter obviously hasn't gone through a job search lately - of COURSE prestige matters! That's why Hernandez is such a hero to her clients -- it's the admissions process that is the problem, not the college counselors who try to help families navigate the college admissions maze. And when NPR bloggers bandy about the phrase "fraud," where are they getting that? How is helping kids with their essays any different than tutoring for the SAT that top colleges require or seeking help outside of the admissions sphere. As for other counselors "reviling" her -- that is not at all accurate - many top counselors, like Lee Stetson who left as the director of admissions at Penn have GONE into college counseling themselves. What does that tell you?

Sent by Hiba King | 6:42 PM | 9-26-2008

I fail to see how Ted O'Neill's argument makes any sense. I use consultants in all aspects of my work and Dr. Hernandez is just that, a consultant -- since when did seeking outside help and guidance become "cheating"? Does that mean we cheat if we hire an accountant to do our taxes? Or hire an SAT tutor? And how does he differentiate what Hernandez supposedly does that crosses the ethical boundry with what his "many close friends" do who are also college consultants? I'm disappointed that the director of such an esteemed college couldn't make a coherent argument for or against college admissions consultants - instead, he sounded bitter and angry at Hernandez on a personal level which is not appropriate for a man in his position.

Sent by RB | 10:17 PM | 9-26-2008

This focus on Ivy League is incredibley short-sighted, from the POV of parents and employers alike.

Example: I'm currently attending the school that produced the Chairman/CEO of Chevron Oil. It's not Ivy League. It's not even in the USA. He didn't study business and doesn't have a MBA - though he now has an honorary Science doctorate from the same school. David J. O'Reilly got a B.Sc in chemical engineering from University College Dublin in Ireland, went straight to work for Chevron, and now runs the company.

Sent by brian t | 8:05 AM | 9-27-2008

I'm not certain if "fraud" is the operative concept or the most important one in this discussion. How about, "authentic?" Individuals who learn that a high degree of manipulation of one's formative experiences, even of one's own self, is necessary in order to gain admission to a particular pool of schools or pool of jobs, are simply living out the well-worn worldview that "the ends justify the means." I would have hoped these budding classicists--or, more appropriately, their adult mentors and evaluators--might have bumped into cautionary tales arising from this approach in the high-end educational environs they frequent. Here's another adage that might be useful, especially to those whose current reading is focused on the financial pages: "You reap what you sow."

Sent by Barbara | 10:00 AM | 9-27-2008

What a well done piece. One thing I wonder: since Hernandez is highly sought after, does she simply pick clients with school records that will get them into top schools in the first place? Seems to me that she's in a great position to capitalize on the fear of a top student's family that they will some how be overlooked by the admissions committee and seek her help out to seal the deal. I wonder what her kids rank in their classes in those affluent public schools and exclusive private academies.

Sent by Logan | 3:50 PM | 9-29-2008