What $40,000 gets you

If you think the amount I’ve listed in the title is what a year of college costs these days, guess again. It’s the price that Michele Hernandez charges for a full-bore course of college admission preparation. On her website she indicates what this includes, starting in 8th grade:

All packages include unlimited time for parents and students from start (collecting materials and writing an in-depth evaluative report) to finish, culminating with completion of college applications and acceptance letters. Dr. Hernandez oversees everything from a customized reading list, help with all writing assignments in high school to course selection, testing schedule, summer activities, etc., all designed towards giving students that critical edge in the competitive admissions process.

From her comfortable perch in Weybridge, VT, Hernandez has managed to parlay a measly four years in the Dartmouth admission office into books and a ridiculous parody of college guidance, aimed at the well-heeled and foolish. One has to wonder who can afford this nonsense, especially now. Among other things, Hernandez says her counseling packages include “unlimited” personal college counseling, but I doubt this means she’s going to turn up at your villa to cozy up to your future collegian and stay the week. Even more oddly, I have to wonder why anyone who could afford her services would bother–I imagine that most of those people are already sending their young Elis and Tigers, already as genetically engineered as collies, to the kinds of private schools that cost enough to have a decent college counselor or ten on staff. So what’s the deal?

It seems beyond rational, frankly. I suppose part of me wishes I’d thought of this way to soak the rich first–it’s a no-brainer, a very high-end version of hucksterism. And with twice her experience on the college side (Amherst) and six more on the high school side, I could easily charge three times as much, right? But can anyone really justify that price tag for advice and counseling that you can get rather easily with a little energy and self-determination, even without a college counselor at your high school? (But of course we’re not talking about those kinds of people, the ones who have to rely on their high schools, public libraries, and other dreary prole resources…)

Well, let’s face it, she’s drawing on the same psychic insecurity that leads people of a certain income level to buy $8,000.00 handbags or $35,000.00 commodes (not a toilet in this instance, by the way, but the money’s flushed away just the same). Her clients are “needy” all right, but in the pathetically insecure way that leads them to focus on name brands and price as substitutes for authenticity, quality, and, in college admission parlance, “fit.”

Hernandez foregrounds as fact that she has “the highest success rate of any college admissions consultant in the country. Last year 100% of my clients were accepted to the Ivy League Schools or top colleges like Stanford and Middlebury.” This is like shooting fish in a barrel–when you can pick and choose your clients and charge them a year’s college tuition in advance to boot just for your handholding, what are the chances they won’t get into so-called “top” schools?

The phrasing here is also somewhat misleading. It implies that all her clients were accepted to “top colleges” and also implies (read: baits clients’ status-driven lust) that she can make a Gatsby out of a Gatz. Not so fast, I say. Her list of where clients have been accepted is far broader than the “Ivy League” statement implies. It includes:

Amherst College
Boston College (Honors program)
Boston University
Carnegie Mellon
Connecticut College
Georgetown (Foreign Service)
Hamilton (Bristol scholarship $20K 50%)
Miami of Ohio, Honors College
Mt. Holyoke
Notre Dame
NYU:Tisch School
Oxford University (England)
Rutgers (full scholarship)
Skidmore Honors Program
St. Andrews University (Scotland)
Tufts (Neubauer Scholar $10,000 stipend over four years)
University of California University of Chicago
University of Maryland (College Park Scholar)
University of Miami

Now you may say that all of these schools are “top colleges” and I say, fair enough. But I suspect that anyone who ponies up the dough expects to be able to slap an Ivy sticker on the car tout de suite. After my years in high school college counseling I can claim at least as good a list if not better, and I did it for 70 kids at a time on a decent salary (But I also worked with kids who for the most part had two-PhD parents or lawyer/doctor parents, etc.). Now I’m really ticked as I calculate what I might have earned if I’d counseled the Hernandez way.

Well, there’s no real point in fulminating any more. If you’re rich enough and stupid enough and pathetically status-conscious enough to hire Hernandez, I suppose you’re going to, whatever a rational person might say. But I pity your kid, who is probably yearning to escape your clutches and spend four years hiding from you his or her search for true, authentic experience in the forms of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, just to feel a little less like a robot. My idea of a true college advising horror show would be to have Hernandez and Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, harridan of high schools, work on your kid together.

Why am I so cranky about this? Why do I care what Hernandez can get away with? Perhaps because there are so many amazingly talented and worthy kids who could really use a shot at decent colleges but have trouble getting access to the kinds of resources that middle-class kids take for granted or that Hernandez puts out of reach. Maybe because I work with wonderful counselors who work for peanuts trying to help poor and underserved students from urban schools get into “top schools” so they can enter the mainstream of American society. Maybe this kind of conspicuous consumption has always ticked me off. Ultimately, it offends my sense that attending college is a way to lift yourself up by your own efforts and feel that you earned something; it’s not something that can be bought. But that’s just me.

I know that the web is ideal for links but I’m not going to provide them here; if you want to see Hernandez’s website you’ll have to find it yourself.

2 thoughts on “What $40,000 gets you

  1. Oh my gosh, give it a rest. I’m so tired of reading about Hernandez or seeing Katherine Cohen on The Today Show or hearing Bev Taylor talk about the millions she is making in China…I work in a public school helping kids because that’s my choice. Frankly, kids who use outside help make my job easier…Thanks, however, for your other blog posts.Karen McDonald


  2. Hi Karen– You’re right really. What’s the point of complaining? People will do what they’ll do. I’m glad I work with kids who really need the help and no longer with grasping, strategizing, phony status-mongers. Will


Comments are closed.