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Commodifying Caste: The IvyWise Defense

I have earlier blogged about private college admissions counselors who charge up to $30,000 to package students’ applications in order to maximize their chances of admission to an elite college. I found the practice troubling–just one more Bourdieuvian method of leveraging monetary capital into cultural capital.

But a leading “packager,” Katherine Cohen, defends her trade in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article. There are several interesting tidbits:

1) The industry is big and growing:

The Independent Educational Consultants Association has seen its membership triple since 1996, and expects continued growth in the coming years. There are now approximately 4,000 independent counselors nationwide. . . . ‘Of the 260,000 [high school] graduates last year who went to private colleges, 58,000 worked with consultants, representing 22 percent of the freshman class in these schools.’

2) It’s not just about packaging; the counselors try to intervene as early as possible in clients’ careers, both to encourage them to pursue extracurriculars they love and to “go the extra mile” in academics. Cohen tries to normalize the process, noting that “Many people hire lawyers to help them negotiate; others use personal trainers to motivate them to stay in shape; singers might hire voice coaches to help them reach the high notes. Coaching is common in countless fields.”

3) Cohen’s group is beginning to respond to equity concerns:

Our most costly service — the Platinum Package, which can run in the $30,000 range and is the one most quoted by the press — includes two years and more than 100 hours of one-on-one counseling with a student. But our initial fees start at $150 for an essay-writing workshop or $1,000 for an initial consultation or application review. On average, our paying clients spend less than $10,000 per family. . . . [A]t least one in seven IvyWise students works with his or her counselor on a 100-percent pro bono basis. . . .I am also excited about a new product we are developing: an online version of the IvyWise methodology, which will be extremely affordable and accessible starting in 2007.

So what to make of all this? First, I’m glad to see that Cohen’s group is beginning to respond to the equity concerns raised by services like hers. But I’m still troubled. It seems to me that at the very least, users of services like these should be required to disclose that they received such assistance (as well as, say, test prep courses) during the application process.

Finally–for those of you wondering “what does this have to do with law?!” ….I’ve recently been reading about South Korea’s battle to “level the playing field” in its intensely competitive educational system. For a brief time the government banned outright “extracurricular lessons” that it deemed an unfair advantage of the wealthy over the poor. But in the Extracurricular lesson ban case, 12-1 KCCR 427, 98Hun-Ka16, 98Hun-Ma429 (consolidated), April 27, 2000, the S. Korean Supreme Court ruled that

The regulation of private education in Article 3 goes beyond the private dimension of substantially infringing on the basic rights of parents and children in private education . . . . Cultural poverty in this age of unlimited competition among states for survival will ultimately lead to social and economic backwardness. There is a question as [to] the effectiveness of Article 3 in the accomplishment of the legislative purpose, one hand, and Article 3 produces substantial restrictive impact on basic rights and substantial disadvantages in the accomplishment of a cultural state, on the other. Therefore, Article 3 departs widely from a reasonable relationship of proportionality between the public interest obtained through the restriction and the restrictive impact caused by the restriction, and therefore violates the balance of interests.

Like the Chaouilli decision in Canada, the Lesson Ban case let individual liberties run roughshod over the regulation of a frequently zero-sum competitive process. Who knows–it may have been the right decision, given how hard it must be to regulate private tutoring. On the other hand, it’s unfortunate that a nascent effort to ensure some scrutiny of unfair advantage got quashed on such tenuous legal authority.