Behind the curtain of ‘highly selective’ pre-college programs

July 15, 2020, 9:57 a.m.

A part of the American high school experience is the flooding of mailboxes, both virtual and physical, with stacks of college mail from all over the country. Packed in between glossy college brochures are letters announcing students’ acceptances into “highly selective programs” — or so they’re advertised. There are many of these pre-college programs, which specialize in attracting students to their often costly workshops, that use this strategy to solicit participants.

The National Student Leadership Conference (NSLC), whose brochure promises “life-changing experiences” and includes the names of some of the country’s most prestigious schools, congratulates students on the honor of receiving their invitation. Similarly, the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS) congratulates students on “outstanding academic achievement” and the membership they will receive after the $75 fee. 

Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford’s School of Education, believes that this type of marketing can convince parents and students that there are college admission advantages to be gained by attending these programs, even though it’s impossible to guarantee those advantages.

“There are people out there who might think this might be a chance for me to get my kid into x, y, z college and that is not the case,” she said. The Stanford admissions department told The Daily they use a holistic review process for admissions, and any program attendance “would only be one of many factors considered in an applicant’s record.”

Berkeley Office of Communications director Janet Gilmore told The Daily that Berkeley similarly considers “all extracurricular activities that a student reports they’ve been involved with during their high school years,” in a holistic fashion.

“If you’re doing it at all to get into somewhere that’s not the right reason to go,” said Pope.

Many of these businesses are designated as nonprofits, even though they report significant revenue. The NSLC is an accredited business by the Better Business Bureau and classified as a tax exempt nonprofit 501(c)3, even though it makes a sizable amount of revenue from attendees — a hefty $29 million for the prior year, according to a most recent filing in 2019. The cost of NSLC programs range from around $3,000 to $5,500 per student depending on course length and intensity. Some students receive financial aid, but it is limited at $250 to $750 per student, an amount that Pope finds nowhere near substantial. 

A 2009 New York Times investigation found that these programs rely on mass email marketing strategies, including messaging about being “nominated” for a special opportunity. Programs will compile email lists from teacher and program alumni recommendations or the College Board. According to the NSLC’s website, there is no indication of a numerical G.P.A requirement for receiving a nomination despite the messaging that might suggest otherwise. 

Pope is not a fan of the marketing strategies employed by these organizations. 

“I think what it’s doing is sending, whether they mean this or not… a sort of false narrative that [recipients] have sort of won something,” she said. 

These pre-college programs are also often hosted at prestigious universities, which can lead to incorrect assumptions by applicants as many colleges rent out their campuses to programs without having organizational connections to them. Stanford hosts the program Envision, a company that has educators recommend students they feel will benefit from their program, but according to The Washington Post, the Envision program at Stanford is not affiliated with Stanford’s schools. 

Pope warns future applicants to top-level universities that the admissions departments will not be won over by a single pre-college program on your application. 

“[Your application] has to be authentic, it has to be legit, it can’t just be because it looks good on your resume,” she said. “It’s not healthy and often college can see right through that.”

David Lowitz, Director of Operations for the NSLC’s D.C. Programs, agreed, saying that attending the NSLC does not guarantee a student admission into their top school. 

Lowitz did not comment on the misleading nature of their marketing strategies, but he did say that the program nonetheless “exposes students to hands-on experiences that many would not have in their regular school environment.” 

According to Pope, exposing students to environments similar to the college experience can be good for them — there are “benefits to the skills learned, there could be benefits to meeting other people and there’s just the benefit of going away for a few days or a week for kids who haven’t done that before,” said Pope. “There’s independence even in that.”

Before attending any program, no matter how highly it is recommended, research is essential. Good places to start are the Better Business Bureau, Charity Navigator, or calling the host university to see if they have a connection with the program, according to Pope. 

“Whatever you do, you need to do your homework before you give any money over to anybody,” she said. “I mean that’s a lesson we all want our children to know; do your homework and see where that money is going.”

Contact Rae Wymer at raewymer ‘at’

Rae Wymer is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.

Login or create an account