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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

How Opal Got Ahead

The MSM has feasted on the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism story for some time.  There's plenty of schadenfreude to go around.  But I think one aspect has been underreported--the role of IvyWise consultants in getting her a book contract, and into Harvard.  As Kurt Andersen relates, well before the scandal she explained:

how hired experts had refashioned her paper self to appeal to Harvard. “They take all the raw material,” she said of IvyWise, a college-application consultancy . . . , “and help you put it together in the way that an admissions officer is going to be most impressed by.”

IvyWise charges about $35,000 for its "platinum package;" Viswanathan reportedly paid between $10 and $20,000 for her consult.

I think this is an instance of a larger phenomenon: the rise of primarily position-enhancing information, not useful intrinsically, but only as a means of besting others in competition.  LSAT prep courses are likely another example.  But we can look beyond the education world--think of the role of expensive suits in the job application process.    Or even various physical enhancements--such as height-increasing human growth hormone, steroids, or cosmetic surgery. 

None of these things adds much to human welfare--they are primarily designed to help some come out ahead in grabbing a bigger slice of the pie.  I think law should intervene here--by, for instance, refusing IP protections to some particularly invidious innovations, as Tim Holbrook has argued here.  Any other suggestions for legal intervention?  Or, conversely, its difficulty or impossibility here?

Posted by Frank3 on May 9, 2006 at 06:40 PM | Permalink


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» College Admissions Help and Disclosure Requirements: from The Volokh Conspiracy
New York Magazine has an interesting piece on the use of expensive consultants that can "package" college applications to improve applicants' chances of admission. Among the difficulti... [Read More]

Tracked on May 9, 2006 8:00:51 PM


Yup. These services really bother me too.

I've set up an open directory of admissions consulting services like IvyWise, Essay Edge and others where families can anonymously review their experience working with them.

IvyWise actually has an entry on the index

Anyone weighs in on their experience would be doing a service to the whole educational community.

Someone needs to hold these consultants accountable and help separate the honest operators from the "packagers."


Any comments or feedback would be appreciated.

Posted by: Brad | Apr 15, 2007 11:53:29 AM

How does one selectively refuse IP protections on content-based grounds without running afoul of the First Amendment?

Posted by: Ted | May 24, 2006 9:25:30 AM

Ugh, what's next - to penalize fashion stylists?! Some people just need more help than others.

Posted by: Plada | May 10, 2006 11:29:38 AM

But one might just as reasonably say that levelling is more morally required in a world where there are diverse unfair advantages than in a world where there are only a few. Commodification of privilege is far more pervasive (and thus objectionable) in the former scenario.

This seems right to me. But what would that levelling look like? Simply reducing an applicant's admissions chances by looking to their parents' wealth seems like a clumsy measure that would exclude the children of successful immigrants who clawed their way up from poverty, while including children of professors who may not be wealthy but still enjoy a host of academic and social privileges.

One alternative might be a more holistic affirmative action that takes into account a variety of factors--race, ethnicity, parents' education level, and socioeconomic status, just for a start--rather than the current system that relies uncritically on a handful of major plus factors while ignoring others. I'd also love to see schools abandon the legacy advantage in admissions. When I got to college I was astonished such a thing existed--it still strikes me as perverse that rich, well-educated, largely white people get yet another leg up in the admissions process.

I'm not sure about this, of course, in part because admissions aren't about fairness but rather about getting the best possible cohort of applicants (measured by whatever standard the school prefers). This may be why I find the application-consulting service particularly objectionable. If someone has done extraordinary things throughout their life, due in large part to socioeconomic privilege, then it seems problematic to prevent schools from admitting these excellent candidates. On the other hand, leveraging one's wealth to come off as an excellent candidate through packaging when in reality you're only a pretty good candidate seems like a different story. There's a whiff of disingenuousness about the latter. So maybe there is a difference in kind going on here.

Posted by: Dave | May 10, 2006 11:10:50 AM

Although the MSM has underreported this angle of Kaavya's meteoric rise and crash, south Asian bloggers (including me) have been all over the "behind the scenes" packaging of a putative genius by eager parents, Alloy Entertainment and yes, even possibly the publishing house, whose willingness to look the other way may also have contributed to the fiasco.

Most south Asian blogs have focused on the culture of over achievement within Asian communities. Immigrant parents who themselves have had to perform at *150%* to find parity with the "natives," can become quite cutthroat in their aspirations to ease the way for their progeny by making available to their children all the name brand labels of the host culture. Asian children therefore often face the the dual pressures of their own ambitions and those of their elders. I must add that although this is not a universal phenomenon, sadly enough, there is much truth to it.

I however do not think that this is a peculiarly Asian thing. Viswanathan's story got so much headline due its Harvard / genius / Asian character and because it came so close after the high profile humiliation of another bestselling author, James Frey. But as Mr. Pasquale rightly points out, the pitfalls of cheating to succeed are not confined to packaging for the Ivy League and academics. Promising youngsters in other fields such as athletics, show business, modeling or music are just as vulnerable to the "prodigy making" zeal of the adults around them.

In the end, Kaavya Viswanathan alone is responsible for her own actions and she will pay the price for her greed and indiscretions for a long time to come. But if some day she chooses to reveal how and why she got caught in the whirlwind of quick and easy celebrity without making a sob story of it (like the John Turturro character on the Quiz Show), she might have an authentic best seller on her hands.

Posted by: Ruchira Paul | May 9, 2006 11:13:35 PM

I think both Geoff's and Dave's comments are on the money, insofar as they identify some cognate forms of unfair advantage. But I am bothered by the argument that "we accept all manner of inequality, so why focus on this one?" Sure, that makes sense if we want to avoid discriminating against one form of advantage. But it seems to me that we have to start somewhere.

In other words, one might say, "the wealthy always have an advantage," and think the very diversity of advantages counsels against focusing on any one of them. But one might just as reasonably say that levelling is more morally required in a world where there are diverse unfair advantages than in a world where there are only a few. Commodification of privilege is far more pervasive (and thus objectionable) in the former scenario.

Posted by: Frank | May 9, 2006 8:59:31 PM

What the market will bear, the market will bear...I have a hard time saying that an immigrant whose parents have worked hard to accumulate enough coin to waste on admissions consulting "service" is any worse, on a moral level, than a legacy candidate who doesn't need to pay for special consulting services because she can get them, at home, from her parents. Is it that paying for the "inside track" is less classy than getting it from the Exeter college advisers or one's own Ivy League parents? The number of students at top schools whose parents/grandparents/uncles/brothers/cousins attended the same schools would shock any fair-minded observer. If someone without that advantage chooses to replace class with spending, more power to her.

The real irony is, of course, that the "system" is so easily gamed. If the IvyWise people are as good as they claim (and their fees seem to indicate they are), then the real question is why the admissions offices are so boneheaded as to buy it.

What will deter future Kaavyas? Kick her out of school. For good.

Posted by: Geoff | May 9, 2006 8:46:10 PM

The college application service really bothers me, especially given the exorbitant and thus exclusionary price tag (do rich kids need _another_ advantage over their less fortunate peers?). But I can't think of a reason that this is different in kind from any of the other ways that wealth gives people an advantage in life (and particularly in the school application process). The wealthy have long sent their kids to private schools that are typically of higher quality than public ones, and while people may not be thrilled with the disparity it's familiar enough that no one seeks to prevent the practice. The one counterbalance that might work would be socioeconomic affirmative action, an idea that's often been floated but has never seemed to have much purchase.

Posted by: Dave | May 9, 2006 8:06:07 PM

Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention one way of dealing with the consultancy/test prep advantages: requiring applicants to disclose if they had paid for such help on the relevant applications.

Posted by: Frank Pasquale | May 9, 2006 7:03:41 PM

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