As hysteria over getting into top colleges has grown in recent years, so too has the admissions consulting industry. Top consultants routinely charge five-figure fees for full packages of advice through applicants' junior and senior years of high school. And some charge a few thousand dollars to attend weekend seminars.
On Friday, one of those consultants may have set a new record in expense for short-term help. Michele Hernandez  announced a three and one-half day "boot camp" in New York City that will cost $9,999. She's already had 30 inquiries and expects to have no problem filling up her goal of 8-10 registrants (with one scholarship student for every five who pay).
What will the students get? Direct access to Hernandez, a consultant who takes on only 15-20 college juniors a year and who says she decided to create the boot camp after turning away some 30 students this year from her full package of services. The boot camp will focus on admissions essays and students will work with Hernandez on main essays, plus special ones on artistic or athletic achievements, and writing that summarizes student activities or awards. Students will also get advice on the odds at getting into various colleges, and do mock interviews.
Hernandez, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and author of three books on admissions, is an example of the high end of the consulting industry. She in fact says that $9,999 is a bargain. She normally charges $22,000 for a junior/senior year package, and $14,000 for people who sign on only as seniors. "And I get people who call me five days before early decision applications are due, and I charge them the full $14,000 for five days of help on the phone," Hernandez says.
Because Hernandez is based in Portland, Ore., and her client base is national, most of her consulting is on the phone, while the boot camp will have her in person.
Ask Hernandez if $9,999 for a long weekend of help might be a sign of something excessive within the consulting industry, and she is quick to disagree. "Look who complains about this stuff," she says. "It's guidance counselors. Well, I was underpaid for years too. And it's colleges, but they are the ones who create the frenzy."
The college admissions process "is insane," Hernandez says. Specifically, she says that the problem is that elite colleges (and those that aspire to be elite) try to get as many applications as possible, so that they can reject as many applicants as possible, and look more selective. This makes it more difficult for everyone to get in, and creates the demand for consultants, she says. (Judging from parent reactions to the boot camp and its expense -- or at least those in an online forum  for parents of college applicants -- there are plenty who agree with Hernandez and also plenty who think her fees are outrageous and consultants are part of the problem.)
Blaming consultants for adding to the problem, Hernandez says, is like blaming accountants for the tax system. "I don't have the time to figure out how to do my own taxes, so I pay. Is that my accountant's fault?"
She adds that no one is forced to use her services. "To me, it's where your priorities are," she says. "Some people would rather drive a Mercedes, and some people want to pay me to get their kids into college."