More Follies of the Striving Class

Jacques Steinberg’s New York Times article and blog entry about overpriced “independent college counselors” hit the paper/blogosphere recently. Although he’s a day late and a dollar short, (they’ve been in business for quite a while) it’s good to have his voice out there again about the absurdities of paying tens of thousands of dollars for college counseling.

While it’s fine, I guess, for rich people to spend their money any way they see fit, it does seem to belong in a category all by itself, especially when it gets to the point of putting on a fashion show to demonstrate what one counselor (who clearly believes Princeton is still living in Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age) thinks students should wear to college interviews. It has an almost Borat-ish feel to it: Are these ambitious students being set up by an artful impostor?

Not just cluelessness but arrogance are on display in the articles:

“It’s annoying when people complain about the money,” the Vermont-based counselor, Michele Hernandez says. “I’m at the top of my field. Do people economize when they have a brain tumor and are looking for a neurosurgeon? If you want to go with someone cheaper, or chance it, don’t hire me.”

I’m not sure what she means by being “at the top of her field” because as far as I know we don’t have any ranking system that would quantify that, nor is there anything like the rigorous testing and qualifying hurdles that neurosurgeons go through. Kind of an insult to neurosurgeons, really. If she means she charges the most, well, that seems like a given. If she means because she gets her counselees into “top” schools, that’s relatively easy when you can pick your clients, they can afford your fee (and presumably full tuition afterwards), and your definition of “top” covers a rather wide range of institutions.

Some claims put forward by these independents are tenuous at best. One who says she worked in the Cornell admission office, had in fact been simply an alumni interviewer; another was an outside reader for Yale, which means that she helped with the overflow of applications but probably had little or no decision-making power. But these slight qualifications, exaggerated claims, and sometimes wildly inaccurate information don’t seem to put people off.

When I lived in Baton Rouge in 1989 there was a woman who called herself an independent counselor by virtue of having sent her own daughter to college. She told one of my students that the SAT was easier in Texas than Louisiana, and the student, despite evidence to the contrary (including a letter from the president of the College Board), rose at 4AM to drive to Houston and took the test there because the woman “cost $800.00” so she must be right. Perhaps we’re dealing with that kind of psychology here. More recently, I knew whenever my students in Chicago were using one particular woman when their college lists were geared more to their egos than reality.

Hopefully, the vast majority of independent counselors are decent people who provide a decent service at a decent cost. They take up the slack when students have no good school counselor or can’t see one easily. I think things have improved since my days in Cajun country, but still, some people don’t seem to mind that they’re spending a fortune to get something they could get just as well if not better for far less.

My question is, Why not? I could vent all day about independents, but what really interests me now is, Who the hell are the people paying the price? Can I assume that they’re the same ones who pay $6,000. 00 for a handbag or $5,000.00 for a shower curtain? I’d really like to know who they are and what they hope to gain. I assume we’re dealing with parents, of course; my guess is that their kids suffer through all the poking and prodding and planning and preening and strategizing, looking forward to the day they can get out of the house and be themselves, if they know who that is by then. The parents, meanwhile, get to brag about their new servant, uh, counselor, and how precious Gwen will get to Exlibris University as a result.

I’d love to study this group and find out what motivates them, how they treat their children, how they themselves got to college, and why they’d try to buy something so dubious as an easy path to the Ivy League or similar. Have they read the dreadful guidebooks of Elizabeth Wissner-Gross? Do they contact all their Ivy friends to make contacts for Junior? Do they try to call the Dean of Admission themselves or do they just let the servant do that? Just wondering. As a former anthropologist I’d give a lot to study this culture and try to figure out how it all intersects with American education and class anxiety.

In the long run, it doesn’t really matter because we’re talking about a fraction of a fraction of a percent of applicants each year, a number so negligible that when you step back it seems a waste to even bother writing about it. The huge majority of students are doing quite well without gilding their applications for the effect. But, like $64,000.00 commodes, $40,000.00 advice fascinates us. While 99.44% of the US gets along fine without the unnecessaries, the freakish .56% still exerts its power over those of us in the cheap seats.