“I don’t want people to think I’m a heartless bitch,” Michele Hernandez is saying on a recent Saturday at a sidewalk café in Harvard Square. The Weybridge-based college admissions consultant has just come from a session of the four-day “Application Boot Camp” she is running at a nearby hotel for 19 students at a cost of $14,000 each.
Hernandez, 42, may be feeling a bit defensive because of a recent New York Times story spotlighting expensive college application consultants, which mentioned the $40,000 she charges for a four-year counseling package that begins when a student is in eighth grade. Some readers who responded online to the Times piece do seem to think of Hernandez in precisely the way she wishes they wouldn’t. “Outrageous” was a common reaction to her quoted fee, while one reader used the word “charlatans” to describe Hernandez and others who claim to have broken the code of admission to elite colleges.
With the economy in a recession and college fees themselves hitting record highs, it’s no surprise Hernandez’s profession provokes such ire. She may not have helped matters by responding to the Times reporter, when asked about her rates, “Do people economize when they have a brain tumor and are looking for a neurosurgeon?”
Hernandez trolls “a market of high anxiety and high entitlement,” says Ben Mason, a Charlotte resident who helps families find suitable placements for troubled adolescents. Clients of consultants such as Hernandez tend to “live through their kids” and to worry that “theirs may be the first American generation whose children won’t have a better economic status than their parents,” Mason observes. “They’re trying to buy their kids a future.”
Vermonters in particular may be appalled by Hernandez’s business model because of the state’s “leveling ethos,” Mason suggests. But, neurosurgeon analogy aside, no one is forced to enlist her services. “A lot of people think it’s sinful,” says Mason, “but if she can get the market to pay what she charges, then I say more power to her.”
As the Times story notes, college counselors aren’t currently bound by any professional licensing requirements, though many claim to have insider knowledge of the admissions process. (Hernandez worked as assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth from 1993 to 1997.)
Should the buyer beware? It’s hard to tell whether Hernandez’s customers are getting value for their dollars. Her firm’s website lists several top schools — the Ivies and Middlebury-tier colleges alike — that have accepted students she has counseled during her nine years in business. The list also includes some less prestigious colleges.
But would those admitted to Harvard, Yale and MIT have gotten in even if their parents hadn’t paid Hernandez’s prices? Are her customers generally satisfied with her services? The answers aren’t easy to ascertain.
Hernandez presents each of her clients with a pledge of confidentiality stating she will never reveal who has contracted with her, so it isn’t possible to interview her present or past patrons. And the anonymous comments from students and parents that she posts on her site are, of course, uniformly laudatory.
The process of deciding who does and doesn’t get admitted to the most selective schools is partly subjective and mostly secretive; it can be influenced by donations, “legacy” considerations for the children of alumni, and pure cronyism. Someone with experience navigating this murky realm might indeed be able to tip the balance in an applicant’s favor, says Jerry Flanagan, vice president for admissions at St. Michael’s College. A consultant with Hernandez’s insider background “will be helpful to some students — more helpful than a high school guidance counselor who doesn’t have her insights and who may be overwhelmed by case load,” Flanagan adds.
A public school counselor may be handling as many as 200 students at once, some of whom are very needy, Mason points out.
Hernandez notes that she doesn’t guarantee anyone will be accepted by a specific school. Some of her students “may aspire to Harvard when they’re in the eighth grade,” she says, “but what if they suck on standardized tests? They’re not going to get in.”
Her clients vary in academic ability, and all she can do in each case, she maintains, is “try to push them into schools at the top of their range.” She does this by urging students to go “above and beyond” what their competitors have to offer. “Develop what makes you special,” Hernandez says she advises them — putting emphasis, she insists, on scholarly achievement rather than on marketing techniques.
But, once students have done what they can to maximize their academic potential, “I package them,” she adds. That entails giving tips on which extracurriculars to pursue, what to include in application essays, and what to wear and how to act at an interview — all without leaving traces of her involvement that might prejudice admissions officers against a candidate.
Hernandez acknowledges that some of the parents with whom she does business are “obnoxious overachievers.” Asian families, who account for a high percentage of her clients, may be particularly driven to win the admissions race no matter the cost, she says. And there are limits to how much obsessive behavior she’ll tolerate. “If someone announces they’ll only look at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, then I’m not going to work with them,” Hernandez says.
But her professed goal of finding the best match for a student, regardless of a school’s brand, isn’t reflected in the subtitle of her 1999 mega-selling book A Is for Admission: The Insider’s Guide to Getting Into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges. Warner Books gave Hernandez a $450,000 advance for that manuscript after it became the booty in a bidding war involving deep-pocketed publishers such as Random House and Simon & Schuster — all eager to profit from the author’s insider tips.
The “academic index formula” is one piece of classified information Hernandez picked up at Dartmouth and subsequently revealed to buyers of her book. It’s simply a compilation of a high schooler’s GPA and standardized test scores. Admissions officials “lie about it” by claiming the formula isn’t a key determinant in the selection process,” Hernandez says.
She argues that the criteria for acceptance into top colleges should be “transparent and open to all.” Flanagan agrees that schools at the highest rungs would do well to “demystify” their admissions decisions.
But if they did, they might put Hernandez out of a job. The consultant graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth in 1989. She earned a master’s degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia and picked up a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University in Florida. “I knew the doctor title would give me more credibility,” she explains in her rapid-fire cadence.
Hernandez talks like a cheetah runs, all the while nervously brushing back her short black hair. Her delivery is consistent with her Type-Triple-A personality. The former Michele Dogin grew up in a Jewish household in New York City’s northern suburbs. As her high school’s valedictorian and star soccer goalie, she was recruited by Harvard and Cornell as well as by Dartmouth. She says today she loves living in “old-fashioned” Vermont because it keeps her from getting too wired.
Hernandez taught Spanish and English for two years at the Putney School in the 1990s. Later, she lived in Addison County with her first husband, Blas Hernandez, who taught Spanish at Middlebury College. A year ago, Hernandez moved to Weybridge with her second husband, Bruce Bayliss, a retired history teacher and headmaster, and her two kids and two dogs. The family’s home on 110 acres of Snake Mountain includes an observatory — astronomy is one of Hernandez’s hobbies. So are reading up to four books a week and training for mini-triathlons.
Her perch at the highest price point among the country’s 5000 college admission counselors suggests a desire for financial security that may be rooted in past struggles. Hernandez says her parents weren’t wealthy, and she was “impoverished” by the loans she needed to finance her Ivy education. She collected unemployment for six months while living in Florida at the time of her divorce. And much of the $450,000 advance for the first of her four books was eaten up by the settlement with her ex-husband, she says.
When she began counseling kids in Florida after losing her job as an academic dean at a private high school, Hernandez was charging $2000 per client. She soon learned that a consultant in New York, whom she views as less qualified than herself, was asking $29,000 for a two-year package. Hernandez raised her rates accordingly.
She isn’t embarrassed by her earnings. “My business is unique,” Hernandez declares. She points out that the $40,000 payment buys around-the-clock availability for four years, along with a 40-page yearly report she writes on each student. The incensed reactions to her rates “have to do with the fact that people begrudge educators making a lot of money,” Hernandez says. She suggests that “the pay for teachers and for investment bankers should be flipped.”
It’s misleading to focus on her prices, Hernandez continues. She says she gives scholarships to a few kids who couldn’t otherwise afford her boot camp, and offers general written advice for as little as $49. She’s also a community activist. In addition to serving on the Weybridge school board, she’s currently battling Middlebury Union High School officials over academic standards and expectations for students.
Only two of her clients live in Vermont, Hernandez notes, agreeing with Mason’s comment that the state’s culture is averse to the elitism she is seen as representing. But at least four other college admission counselors do operate in Vermont, according to a listing on the website of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. This group, to which Hernandez does not belong, is trying to establish official standards for the profession.
One member is Barbara LeWinter, a former psychologist for the Essex Junction school system, who now counsels about 15 students a year. She charges $150 for an initial consultation, $600 for a package of five sessions and $2500 for “hand-holding from beginning to end” for those who have “hit a bump in their high school careers with a bad semester or a bad year.”
LeWinter adds that “it’s not the name of the college that’s critical; it’s whether a college is a good fit for a particular kid.” Unlike Hernandez, however, LeWinter doesn’t deal just with aspirants to elite schools; she has counseled a couple of clients to apply to the Community College of Vermont.
Hernandez may not always pick her words diplomatically when she describes her work, but can she be faulted for exploiting a market niche? Terming the college selection process “dysfunctional,” she asks why counselors like herself should be criticized when the system itself is at fault.
It’s a fair point. But, then again, plenty of American students have managed to get accepted to selective colleges based on their own merits. And others may have benefited from less costly coaching. Noting that she doesn’t know Hernandez personally, LeWinter says she’s hesitant to pass judgment. Instead, she offers an analogy rather different from the one that likens admissions counseling to brain surgery: “You can get from Point A to Point B in a Kia, a Prius or a Lamborghini. Some people say they need a Lamborghini. It depends on your values.”