Theses Doctoral

Private College Consultants, Race, Class, and Inequality in College Admissions

Huang, Tiffany Joyce

Since the 1980s, selective college admissions has become increasingly competitive. In 2021, for example, Harvard admitted a record-low 3.4 percent of applicants, compared to 18 percent in 1990. Trends at selective public institutions are similar. Concurrently, the role of race in admissions has evolved, as legal challenges, from Regents of the University of California v. Bakke onward, have limited the scope of affirmative action policies. The consideration of race in admissions, once intended to repair historical racial injustices, is now justified by the educational benefits of diversity. The same Supreme Court decisions also promoted the use of holistic review in admissions. These trends have collided in the latest legal challenges to affirmative action policies, which have mobilized Asian Americans as plaintiffs, accusing highly-selective schools of discrimination.

Amidst this competitive and contested landscape, the private college consulting industry has grown exponentially. One trade association estimates that the number of independent educational consultants (IECs) in the United States quintupled between 2005 and 2015. Hired primarily by middle- and upper-class families, IECs occupy a unique position. They work intensively one-on-one with students to help manage a complicated process, while also maintaining ties to schools and colleges. They therefore serve as an analytical lens for understanding how broader trends in admissions affect students on the ground. Drawing on research on culture and educational inequality, the history of race in college admissions, and moral boundary-making, I ask how IECs help clients interpret elements of holistic review; how IECs respond to perceived discrimination and questions of racial diversity; and how participants in a system viewed as unequal draw moral boundaries around their work.

Through interviews with 50 IECs in New York and California, I first show that IECs’ work makes the processes by which students successfully apply to colleges explicit. In doing so, they shine a light on what I call shadow criteria, or the unstated set of criteria that underlie the official criteria by which colleges judge applicants. Authenticity is one shadow criterion that requires students to translate their existing cultural capital into an application that is attractive to admissions officers – a process that, as I will show, is subject to class-based considerations. Second, IECs view White, Asian American, and underrepresented minority (i.e., Black, Latinx, and Indigenous) students as having different concerns about racial diversity and discrimination, and advise students accordingly. However, addressing these concerns at the individual level can reinforce colleges’ racialized admissions systems and reify stereotypes. Third, the majority of respondents view the overall admissions system either as flawed, or at best with ambivalence. Respondents draw moral boundaries between themselves and bad actors in the profession, legitimating their work and justifying it morally.

Through the lens of the independent educational consultant, this dissertation contributes to our understanding of how actors within the college admissions ecosystem respond to competitive pressures. It also provides a greater qualitative understanding of how the growing field of private educational consulting operates.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Lee, Jennifer
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 16, 2021