Private Wealth

May 5, 2009

Passing Muster


Donald Dunbar was an educational consultant in Boston helping young people apply to college when he began working with a boy who was attending Geneva’s elite Institut Le Rosey. The boy came from a wealthy family, and they had hired Dunbar to help him get into Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he hoped to study agriculture. The problem was, the boy’s grades were poor. Dunbar lobbied on his behalf, however, telling Cornell administration officials that he spoke 12 languages. Cornell’s response: “But can he think in one?”

Still, Dunbar persisted, explaining that the boy was very bright, was genuinely interested in the field and was likely to put his education to good use, given that his family owned plantations all over South America and Asia and that he had already worked on some of them.

In the end, Cornell officials saw merit in Dunbar’s endorsements and admitted the boy.

“This kid was near the bottom of his class, and Le Rosey hadn’t gotten anyone into the Ivies lately. After that, they thought I could get anyone in anywhere,” Dunbar says of the people at Le Rosey.

When they asked if he could, he said, “Of course not.”

Still, the headmaster from the institute flew to Boston and hired Dunbar on the spot to help its students get into American colleges.

Dunbar is an educational consultant—part of a profession that helps wealthy families navigate the sometimes byzantine world of college admissions. He says he likes to get children early, in say seventh grade, so he can begin grooming them. If these students leave a good impression on their peers and teachers, it reflects well on them later. However, if they’re selfish and competitive, that, too, will reflect on them—poorly.

He was once an admissions official at Phillips Academy preparatory school in Andover, Mass. Whenever a pupil was being considered for acceptance to the school and it was a close call, the choice always came down to something the student said in an interview or what a teacher said about him.

Character is key in the application process, Dunbar says. He recalls a young woman who mentioned in her essay to Phillips that she had a job on weekends, and she went on to talk about how her friends wouldn’t even know an eight-hour workday if it bit them. That was a mistake, Dunbar says, because it made her look too aggressive and competitive.

“Show a little immaturity in your character, and you’re gone,” Dunbar says. “Adolescents love to share their dirty laundry. They love saying really outrageous, adolescent things. You just have to keep them from doing that.”

Like all people who provide services for the wealthy, people like Dunbar do a lot of hand-holding, not only acting as a liaison between the family and the schools but also acting as a buffer between the child’s desires and the parent’s expectations—all for the price of about $7,500 to $10,000.

The families “don’t want the stress of this process in the household. They don’t want the friction between themselves and the children,” says Cynthia Kunkel, an education consultant in New Canaan, Conn.

Education consultants help children determine what it is they want to do, where they want to go and what school would best fit those needs. People like Dunbar also know what works best in the eyes of admissions officials, so they can help the children write their essays, tell them what school activities to join early on, let them know how much community service to do, and even tell them what to say in the interviews.

“Many times, the child does not know what they want, and they need someone to get it out of them,” Kunkel says. “Sometimes they can express themselves better to an independent person.”

Kunkel notes that consultants don’t write the essay for the students. But they will brainstorm topics with them and help draw out their ideas.

There’s also a lot of strategy that goes into the application process. For instance, schools like to show that the students they accept end up attending. Students can try to increase their chances of getting into a school by applying for an “early decision,” in which they apply by November 15 and commit to attend if the school accepts them. But it can backfire if too many students apply this way, making the pool even more competitive. It can also limit the student’s options.

“By going early-decision, you’re signaling to the school that you’re committing yourself 100%,” Kunkel says. “I only recommend doing it if the child is absolutely sure they want to go there.”

But perhaps the most important thing an education consultant can do is navigate the subtle relationship that exists between a school’s admissions department and its development team, which raises money.

“It can be helpful in the admissions process,” acknowledges Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant.

Universities need money and spend a lot of time fund raising. And their massive teams of development officials do research into the financial backgrounds of not only their students but their prospective students, Goodman says.

Sometimes it can be helpful for consultants like him to communicate the extent of a family’s wealth to the universities, setting up breakfasts or conference calls between the student’s family members and a member of the university’s board. Normally, the contact begins with a development officer, though it could also involve a faculty member or senior member of the school’s administration, Goodman says.

A family might donate a certain amount of money to the school over several years. Or maybe they’ve already donated in the past. Perhaps they built the university’s library. All of these things can help, provided the student’s grades and SAT scores meet the school’s minimum standards, which in the Ivy League or at other competitive schools are usually quite high. As one consultant put it, “It can help a kid who is in the ballpark, but his grades must at least be as good as a football player.” That said, if the family gave more than $1 million to the school and the child’s father was an alumnus, even a B student might get in, experts say, though he should probably have taken some difficult courses, enabling him to show some promise.

Dunbar concurs. “You asked if I ever tried to influence admissions officers, and my answer was never, but I have always made sure development offices know about families that might not have emerged in their research,” he says, noting he will make them aware of a family’s wealth indirectly, through alumni.

Problems arise, though, if a family believes giving money will automatically result in acceptance. In fact, consultants say they know of instances in which wealthy families donated substantial sums to a school and yet their child was rejected anyway.

“There is no direct quid pro quo. However, often families hear something different than what university officials are saying,” Goodman says.

Goodman says he would divide his wealthy clients into two categories: those who want the school to know about the family’s wealth, and those who don’t. The latter say they want their children to grow up as they did, with less money and privilege. They believe their children will be more motivated and will be treated more as peers at school than as oddities.

“There are a lot of families who do not want their children to be given special treatment,” Goodman says.

In some instances, a family’s wealth can actually work against the student. Admissions officials may view a child as privileged, having had the best access to tutors and private schools, with parents who are probably educated and big readers, and the schools will be comparing such children to those from lower-income families, who may not have had such advantages or books in the house. Consultants say a child from a family with a low income who has a B average might actually look stronger than a wealthy child with an A average.

Lynn Hamilton, an educational consultant in Santa Barbara, Calif., says she sometimes has to explain to the children of wealthy parents that focusing their essay and application on, say, their safari to Kenya or their trip to the Masai Mara may have been exciting, but it reeks of privilege, and some college admissions officers take a dimmer view of students who they believe have had it too easy.

“I say try to write about something your parents haven’t bought you. Write about some community service. And so they’ll write about when they went to Bali to do community service,” Hamilton says. “I say to them, ‘What have you given back and not just taken?’ Because the colleges are going to ask the same thing.”

Hamilton also warns her students about having their parents write their essays. For one thing, she says, the essays read way too smoothly, and it’s obvious it’s been written by someone else.

“And if dad is a businessman, they write notoriously bad essays,” Hamilton jokes.

But parents don’t just write their children’s essays. They pressure them into colleges at which their children may not fit.

“Parents think if they just set their kids up at the most prestigious college, they’re setting them up for life, but it just doesn’t work that way,” Hamilton says.

As a general rule, students are happiest when they are studying subjects that interest them and are surrounded by peers of similar intellect and socioeconomic background. That’s not necessarily what makes their parents happiest. The problem isn’t just parents pushing their children to schools they may not like. It’s parents pushing children toward schools that may not even accept them.

“There’s a lot of expectation management in the business,” says Emilie Hinman, an educational consultant in Greenwich, Conn. “Do most wealthy students get into the colleges they apply to? If they’re applying to appropriate colleges, sure.”


Copyright © 2009 Charter Financial Publishing Network